Duolingo Max Uses AI, But Not Very Well


All screenshots by author

Duolingo has taught me more than any other language app or book. I’ve tried just about all of the apps, paid good money for many, and none of them have given me as much as the green owl and his friends. None of them.

However, Duo could do-o so much better. I and others find that it can be quite frustrating as they seldom explain anything very well. More frustrating is that they are sometimes misleading and even completely wrong.

Fortunately, comments are allowed and often you can learn what you need from people who help the rest of us by explaining tricky gotchas. When that fails, Google usually can find a deeper explanation.

In some ways, that’s better. Early on, deep dives can make things more confusing for students. When I’m ready for it, I look for it, and will understand it better because I’m further along.

Duolingo Max

But now Duo has announced Duolingo Max. At the moment, this is only available in English speaking countries for Spanish and French courses. I happen to be studying both.

This is a pricy upgrade. My Family Plan subscription is now $240 a year, double what it previously was. I am not sure that it is worth it. However, I am optimistic that it can be improved and hopeful that it will be, so I am keeping it for now.

What does it offer?

Two things: Role Play and Explain My Answer.

Role Play

Role Play is the better of the two new features. Here you are presented a scenario. In the first one I tried, I was supposed to be an airline traveler whose baggage has been lost. An agent asked me questions about when and where I last saw my baggage and I answered, all in Spanish, of course.

I deliberately made some mistakes in my answers and accidentally made a few more. The AI corrected some mistakes after I made my answers, but ignored those less important. When the role play concluded, it gave a more complete critique of my entire conversation. Although I am not expert at this point, I thought the critique would be helpful.

A helpful AI critique

They say the scenarios are geared toward your level of learning. I found that I have not advanced far enough in French to be allowed any role play at all. That makes sense; I’m only at the point of learning basic vocabulary.

Explain My Answer

Here’s where things get less advanced than I would like. In this example, I deliberately used “nada” where I should have used “mucho”. The AI’s suggestion would be valuable if I had misunderstood the whole sentence.

My deliberate mistake
The AI’s suggestions

Okay, but if someone had misunderstood the whole sentence, I think the AI could have gone a bit deeper. Unfortunately, it bails out rather quickly.

The AI has nothing more to offer

Explain My Answer does work in the French cousre. Again, I made deliberate mistakes and again the AI gave up being helpful rather quickly.

Well no, that’s not helpful
It might have mentioned that the e ending usually means feminine

From other experimenting in French in Spanish, it seems to me that the AI can’t really analyze mistakes. It knows when an answer is wrong, but it doesn’t always see all the reasons that a student might have answered that way. It would be better if the student could type in the particular part of the correct answer that is still confusing, or just ask a question like “What nouns are feminine?”

You could pop over to OpenAI’s GPT-4 and ask your questions there. You’d get decent answers.

Now that is helpful

But Duo itself is using GPT-4, so why should you have to? Why not give us access right there?

So, at the moment, I’m not sure Duolingo Max is a worthwhile upgrade for most of us. I’ll keep my subscription for now in hopes that they will improve, but will downgrade next year if they don’t.


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