You can learn some Chinese with Duolingo, but you can’t learn Chinese (in the way that you mean this question) with Duolingo. Neither is it likely you can obtain fluency learning Chinese with five minutes a day, even if you keep up your streak for over a year. Let us explain.
The good: Chinese with Duolingo is super easy to get into
Download the app, register, and poof: you’re learning Chinese within a few minutes and you’re learning how to say Hello and Goodbye in Mandarin Chinese. This is great and it gives you confidence, and the message is: “Did you think learning Chinese was going to be a struggle? You’re wrong!”
And to be fair to Duolingo, the last levels of Chinese language learning are quite a challenge still for elementary learners to complete perfectly. It’s kinda easy to translate a sentence into English, but matching Chinese Hanzi characters & Pinyin is a challenge — especially if it’s for similar Pinyin and only the tones are different.
The good: Gamification
Learning any language is tedious and at times…. boring. Duolingo does a great job of making it fun. There are scores, points, and you keep up a daily streak. Plus dancing and jumping characters! All these things motivate you to keep going to learn Chinese. It’s an often overlooked aspect of learning Chinese (looking at you…. boring textbooks!)
The bad: It’s too small to learn Chinese
If you see the screenshots below, you’ll see the final ‘levels’ of Chinese with Duolingo. While it’s good, it’s nowhere near enough to start working in China using Chinese, or studying here. And now we’re just talking about vocabulary! This brings us to our next point…
The bad: A language is more than vocab
A skeptic would call Duolingo a game and not a full Chinese language course. Ouch. Yeah there, we said it.
Apps like Duolingo (or HelloChinese for that matter) are great for getting started and for learning vocab — but soon you plateau or you don’t get beyond simple travel conversations. You need a teacher to practice pronunciation and unlearn bad habits. You need to speak and get instant feedback on your speech. You need to learn grammar and know the difference between words like 还是 and 或者, 本来 and 原来. The attraction of learning a language with five minutes a day from your sofa has attraction, but it’s not a realistic one.
For more on this, read our article How to reach fluency in Chinese, and you’ll notice that Duolingo at most can play only a small part.
Summary of learning Chinese with Duoling
Duolingo is a great tool, especially to get started. But it’s merely a small tool to start learning the Chinese language, one of many. And one you probably will finish after HSK3. Also, The Verge is saying you probably won’t learn Chinese from Duolingo, and on the Duolingo forums people are saying it’s ill-advised to just use one source for learning. And yeah, that’s true. We also recommend our students to learn outside of class with our Chinese tutors, with podcasts in Chinese, Netflix movies in Chinese, and graded readers.