How Duolingo Brought Microlearning to the Masses

The eLearning industry has been discussing and applying microlearning to corporate training for years. However, there is one company that brought microlearning to the masses: Duolingo.

What is Duolingo?

Duolingo is a task-based, gamified, multiple choice learning app that helps learners learn foreign languages for free. Released in 2011, it has since grown to over 200 million users and is the most downloaded app in the education category on both iTunes and Google Play Store.

And if you think those numbers are impressive, the app boasts over 25 million users a month and offers 62 courses.

Duolingo recognized that people learn best (and enjoy it!) when it’s fun. That’s why they took a gamification, microlearning approach to language learning. In just 5 – 20 minutes a day you can begin to gain proficiency in a foreign language.

The beauty of learning this way is that people use Duolingo for the in-between moments. The moments when it’s too short to do anything for a long period of time, and yet there is still enough time to fit something in while you wait for lunch or that friend to arrive who is notoriously late.


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What makes Duolingo so effective?

There are several factors that contribute to Duolingo’s effectiveness. On the backend of the application, it uses machine learning. For those unfamiliar with machine learning, it’s the same tactics employed by casinos at slot machines. They try to increase your chances of winning on the first few tries, so you keep coming back for more.

In the article, How Duolingo Got 100 Million Users, they explain how “Duolingo uses similar psychology to hook users. It has a progress bar on top which expands or shrinks depending on how you do on multiple choice challenges. This is rigged to keep you hooked with more positive reinforcement than you’ve probably earned in the early stages.”

As you progress through the courses, machine learning on the backend of the app, alters the difficulty level of the exercises you see on the frontend based on your answers to previous questions.

The exercises within the courses are a combination of multiple choice, listening, speaking. This creates a completely customized learning experience for the users that adjusts to their knowledge level.

What we can learn from Duolingo

Even the best of apps face drop-off rates. Bill Gates was once a user of Duolingo, but he too dropped off after a while due to lack of time (although did we anticipate Bill Gates to have a ton of spare time?).

“‘Learning is like going to the gym,’ explained Luis von Ahn, founder of Duolingo. ‘It has to be fun to make you want to go and work out every day. That’s what Duolingo tries to do with its gamification.”

However, gamification and microlearning need not only apply to the learning of foreign language. For example, we worked with Microsoft to create a custom branded interactive gaming experience to enhance management development. We were able to take an often dry, corporate topic and make it engaging and, dare we say it, fun for employees to use.

Two key takeaways from Duolingo

1. Engage

If you work in the learning industry or have ever taught a course, you understand that keeping the engagement of learners is no easy task. That’s why there has been a steady of gamification in corporate learning. Duolingo uses gamification to keep learners engaged in the languages they are learning day-after-day.

Stats show that the average Duolingo users spend an average of ten minutes on the app each day. Couple this with daily reminders (if you opt in for mobile notifications), Duolingo helps keep users engaged and combats the learning curve.

2. Iterate

Did anyone use Duolingo long enough to remember the hearts at the top? Anytime you got something wrong; you would lose a heart. Well, Duolingo used the same machine learning to run an experiment and see what would happen when they switched from hearts to a progress bar.

The result? More people stuck with the app when they had a progress bar, and they were no longer losing heart when they lost hearts. Iterate on what you’re doing to make it as effective as possible for learners.

You can apply this same concept to all of your learning. Whether you are deploying learning through a mobile application, eLearning course, or video, make iterations and continuous improvement where necessary through experimentation. This is critical to your learning and content strategy as a whole.


While we understand that Duolingo is centered entirely around bringing foreign language learning to the masses, their strategy and concepts have wide-reaching applications for microlearning in corporate environments. By simply asking what you can do to make your learning more engaging and then taking your answers and iterating on them over and over again, you are constantly ensuring that you are putting your learners and users first. It may sound simple, but it works!

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