A decade of Duolingo: The science behind its latest app update

11 Aug 2022

Image: © boumenjapet/Stock.adobe.com

Duolingo has been making some updates to its popular language learning app as it marks its 10th anniversary.

Over the past decade, Duolingo has evolved into a household name thanks to its irreverent and low-cost approach to language learning.

Its daily short lesson prompts are designed to encourage users to learn languages under their own steam. The company’s green owl mascot Duo offers moral support to learners, while its interactive lessons are based around repetition and memory.

Recently, SiliconRepublic.com spoke to Zaria Parvez, who is responsible for communicating the company’s message through the Duo across all social media platforms. Duo’s mischievous antics have proved a runaway hit with TikTokers, as the company’s account now boast more than 4m followers.

Almost 50m people across the world use the Duolingo app, which is free to download. It offers more than 100 courses in 42 distinct languages ranging from Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese to Welsh, Finnish, Latin and Scots Gaelic. Klingon is also available for Trekkies.

In May, as it celebrated 10 years since its launch, Duolingo said it was updating its platform to make it even more user-friendly. It began by rolling out a new home screen for iOS users, which would soon be available for Android users.

The redesigned home screen was in response to learners who had expressed concerns they weren’t using the app in the best or correct way.

“We’re always looking for ways to make language learning easier, and we thought we could do better at guiding learners through lessons,” a company blogpost said. The updated home screen aims to provide learners with a “clear path” to achieving their language learning goals.

According to Colin Watkins, UK country manager for Duolingo, the update process was heavily informed by linguistics and learning psychology.

“The new redesign helps implement a learning strategy called ‘spaced repetition,’” said Watkins.

“Basically, to remember information long-term, it’s more effective to space out practice for a particular concept than to cram. When you initially learn a concept, you’ll want to revisit it fairly soon after, but then you can gradually expand the time between practice sessions.”

Watkins said that the new design is also informed by analysis of Duolingo’s in-app data. Lesson content has remained the same, which is good news for those who like the platform’s approach.

Collaborating with linguists and technologists is nothing new for the Pennsylvania-headquartered company, however.

Duolingo has more than 500 staff. Its learning and curriculum team is comprised of experts in linguistics and the psychology of how people learn languages. Its technology teams include a variety of roles from software engineers, to machine learning and AI experts, to data scientists and user experience researchers.

Both the tech and learning and curriculum teams work closely together and with Duolingo’s product developers to deliver the service.

Watkins believes that users will have “no difficulty” in navigating the home screen’s new look, thanks to the many brains involved.

The redesign “represents months of thought and work” from the team, according to the company’s blogpost, which called it “a step in the right direction for every learner.”

Duolingo Old Home Screen

The old home screen. Image: Duolingo

Duolingo New Home Screen

The new home screen. Image: Duolingo

The home screen is now designed as a path that users can follow step by step. One level is equivalent to one crown level of a skill on the old home screen. Users’ progress on the old screen will be transferred to the new version, so there’s no need to worry about losing your Klingon streak. Just instead of collecting crowns as you complete lessons, you can see how you’re progressing down a path.

Lessons are now ordered so that users learn a mix of concepts. Duolingo previously recommended this learning method, but the update has now made it the default, said Watkins.

Lessons are also grouped into smaller units and practice is built into your path. You can progress as quickly or as slowly as you wish. In keeping with the repetition learning method, you can also go back and refresh what you’ve already learned.

Watkins concluded that as the new design is rolled out to more users, Duolingo will receive feedback and monitor metrics, which it will use to further fine-tune the design.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.