Babbel vs Duolingo: I Honestly Wouldn't Use Either Of Them

Babbel vs Duolingo: I Honestly Wouldn't Use Either Of Them

Babbel and Duolingo are two of the most popular and well-known platforms for language learning.

Duolingo’s popularity stems primarily from the fact that it’s a “free” service, whereas Babbel is known by its viral marketing campaigns and TV ads.

I’m sure you’ve seen that bearded hipster who’s in pretty much every Babbel commercial.

I’ll get into the main similarities and differences in detail in just a moment.

But let me just start out by saying that I’m usually not a fan of writing these kinds of comparisons (see my Rosetta Stone vs Duolingo review for example). It’s often like comparing apples and oranges when you take two different platforms with different missions and try to draw comparisons.

I’ll do it anyway today since people ask.


UPDATE: I’ve been brigaded by Duolingo forum trolls over my points below re: Duolingo’s revenue model (which has changed) and subsequently contacted by Duolingo for a correction.

Here’s the email I received from Duolingo for clarification:

Hi Donovan,

I work for Duolingo and wanted to reach out regarding your review of us vs. Babbel. Specifically, there is one factual error in the article that I’d like to clarify, which relates to our business model and the crowdsourcing of translations. While we did this early on, we stopped crowdsourcing translations a few years ago and have instead focused on monetizing through ads and our Duolingo Plus subscription option, which is our biggest source of revenue.

If you are able to clarify this for your readers, I would greatly appreciate it.

No worries.

I’ll update these points at a later date when I have time.


To summarize the main differences:

Duolingo

  1. Duolingo is a “free” platform and its content is sourced from volunteers. It’s not really free though. You’re paying in other ways (I’ll explain below).
  2. It has a paid premium option which removes ads and lets you download content for offline use.
  3. Duolingo’s gamified learning is addictive but lacks any real substance.
  4. Duolingo covers a lot of different languages (33 at the time of this writing – some in beta).

Babbel

  1. Babbel is a paid SaaS product (recurring subscription).
  2. It covers fewer languages than Duolingo (14 at the time of this writing).
  3. Babbel has a professionally designed learning path and is more comprehensive (but less addictive than Duolingo).
  4. Babbel would be on nobody’s radar if it wasn’t for the enormous advertising investment they’ve made in recent years.

Babbel also includes some elements that are reminiscent of Rosetta Stone (although Rosetta Stone does a better job at it).

Personally, I don’t get much value out of either Duolingo or Babbel and wouldn’t personally rely on them to learn a language.

There are much higher quality language learning resources in my opinion.

Duolingo – nothing is ever free!

So I assume that the main reason why you’re comparing Duolingo with Babbel is that one is “free” and the other is not.

Babbel has a recurring charge. Duolingo costs nothing.

It makes perfect sense why people would prefer to use a seemingly free product over a paid one (even though Babbel is inexpensive).

But one thing I’ve been pointing out lately is that Duolingo is not free.

Here’s how Duolingo works:

Every time you go on their platform to learn a language and fill out exercises (fill-in-the-blanks) and so on, those answers you give are actually passed on and sold to major corporations.

You don’t even realize it but you are translating content that gets sold on.

The man who invented Duolingo, Luis Von Ahn, is the same guy who created the CAPTCHA login quizzes.

It’s a genius concept to be fair – they show you some images and ask you to identify something in the images or write the text you see in an image, and then your answer is used to authenticate you.

It’s also sold to a company that wants your answer for whatever purpose that may be.

Well Duolingo works the same way.

You get a service (language learning) and in exchange for your answers that are provided to companies, Duolingo is paid a lot of money.

So really, Duolingo is just a front for crowd-sourced translation.

Most people wouldn’t have a problem with this model.

Some people might see it as a fair exchange (a service for a service).

But I have ethical concerns over it – I don’t want anything of mine given away to people when I can’t see the details or have any control over it. I feel the same way about companies like Google and Facebook who profit off your data and the information you freely provide to them.


UPDATE: I have read some unconfirmed reports online that suggest Duolingo moved away from this model and in place of paid subscriptions for their premium service.

I’m not sure if this is accurate or what the details are at this stage.


Duolingo’s UI is a child’s toy – by design

I’ve written extensively about the very clear trend of infantilization in UI.

Particularly with language apps.

Take a look at the UI (design) of the Duolingo website and app – it’s a children’s toy. It’s incredibly babyish and appeals to limited attention spans.

This is a general trend we’re seeing across the board with design.

Duolingo employs cartoon awards, big noises and bright colors.

Babbel doesn’t follow the trend of UI infantilization quite as much – they look a lot more professional and ‘adultish’.

You might think this is an odd argument to make but the dumbing down of interactive learning for adults is concerning.

Babbel – even a mediocre app can succeed with enough money thrown at it

The issue I have with Babbel is that it is a very mediocre platform (not bad, not great).


See my Babbel review if you haven’t already where I explain this in great detail.


But it’s becoming more and more of a household name because of the advertising it runs – it’s literally everywhere.

I see it all over Google and social media (relevant ads because I research language content so much) and all over TV.

In fact, my wife who knows very little about language learning trends came up to me recently and asked me:

“Hey, have you used this Babbel app?”

She’s seen it on TV so much that it stuck with her!

So the ads work – they’ve done wonders for Babbel’s brand recognition.

But here’s the thing:

Babbel is not becoming well-known because it’s a great platform.

I usually judge a language resource based on this question – has this product achieved recognition based on its own merit?

Is it unique enough that it stands out and gets organic reach?

Or is it just really good at ad campaigns?

I made a very similar point about Michel Thomas not too long ago – it’s a terrible product that had the advantage of Hollywood celebrity endorsements which catapulted it to fame.

It’s not that Babbel’s a bad app.

It’s just not great.

Personally, I prefer neither but Babbel is clearly better than Duolingo

Duolingo and Babbel have some similarities in style but are utterly different overall.

They’ve both derived success in two different ways:

  1. Duolingo has a thriving, organic community of loyal supporters who help build the platform and ‘evangelize’ other people to the platform through Reddit and other social media.
  2. Babbel has become an advertising juggernaut with outside investment that has enabled it to get widespread attention to its very bland, uninspired product.

Duolingo has an army of volunteers and devotees who build it for free. It’s not really free though.

When a product is free, it usually means you are the product.

The language coverage of Duolingo is impressive however and the gamified aspects are clever and fun (provided you don’t spend too much time on it).

Babbel has fewer languages but does them better than Duolingo.

You can tell that Babbel has actually put effort into hiring language experts to craft proper lessons.

The problem is, the platform is bland and feels uninspiring.

I just don’t get much value out of either Duolingo or Babbel and would get further booking a few cheap sessions on italki. If I had to choose one, it’d be Babbel though, because it’s designed by professionals and doesn’t farm my translations to sell to corporations.

There are also plenty of better language resources that I’ve shared before.


What are your thoughts on Duolingo and Babbel?

Share them below.

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Here's what you should read next:

Black Friday (2020) Huge Language Learning Deals [+ Gift Ideas]

Memrise vs Duolingo: If I Had To Choose, I'd Pick Memrise

Duolingo vs Rosetta Stone: A Totally Ridiculous Comparison

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic

COMMENTS

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Echo

For duolingo - how am I translating something that is already translated? How is what I am "translating" being sold when it is already translated. Duolingo gives you a sentence in your learning language and gives you cards with the right translation mixed in, but if you click the other language words the translation is there already to. We as users aren't doing any translating, just copying their translation? I'm not saying you are wrong, I am confused as to how that works or why.

Donovan Nagel

Well I guess you could ask the same thing about ReCaptcha - they already seem to have the answer so how are they selling your answer?
To be honest, I'm not sure how the process works internally.
But it is a well-known and publicly documented fact that Duolingo's revenue comes (or came) from user translations being sold to big companies like CNN.

Elizabeth Gardner

It's also a well-known documented fact that Duolingo stopped selling translations many years ago. The process didn't work and wasn't profitable, so they stopped. Currently, Duolingo's revenue comes mainly from ads.

Michael Donahue

Hey Donovan,

I've seen your webpage. Great commentary. I have a question. I'm an english speaker with experience travelling to arabic countries. I learned quickly spekaing my few arbabic words learned from Egypt do not translate well in a country like like Morocco/Algeria/Tunisia. I like visiting arabic countries and want to learn arabic. The Rosetta app I have bought arabic platform (3 months) and my brief use of it I do not like - what's w/the pics of various kids and nationalities for word associations? Was rosetta a good choice? Should I seek another language PC/iphone tool?

Any advise would be helpful. I appreciate any insight.

Shukran! Mike

Cermak

I have almost finished my German tree in Duolingo. I paid for my use with a plus subscription. Perhaps if I had to do it again, I would choose a different app, but it worked for getting me in reading to the B1 level (beginning of) (note I did not just do Duolingo I also did and do work on dw.com, listened to podcast, read books etc.).

I am not sure what you mean by the design. Bright colors? sure. So what. The cartoon characters on the app are annoying too, but I seldom use the app anyway since it uses word bubbles and the web app allows typing instead.

The benefit of Duolingo to me is that it made it seem like fun to do the grunt work of early language learning. The streak system was ingenious for motivating me to come on the site every single day. The German forum was a place where people encouraged one another. Now that I am better at the language, I am able to continue to learn the language in fun ways like through movies, radio, italki lessons, books meant for German natives, etc.

I have signed up for italki lessons. I have had 2 now. They are primarily cultural exchanges where we ask about the lifestyle in each others countries and talk about current events. I do not think I would get anything out of italki without already having a basis of vocabulary and tenses.

Where Duolingo falls down is in some human beings human nature. Some folks are highly competitive and become speed demons to get promoted up the leagues even if their learning suffers. Other people use the motivation to encourage them to make an extra effort. And there are circumstances where life events keep someone from continuing a streak then they get depressed due to the streak loss without considering the learning they have acquired. Oh and other than the language specific forums, the forum environment is toxic there, due to the users.

The other thing with Duolingo is the trees are better for some languages than others. The German tree is very good. It almost exactly tracks the dw.com lesson as far as tenses and basic vocab. dw.com has a different agenda in that it wants to prepare one to live in Germany so it teaches more practical items like registering with the authorities, opening a bank account, applying for a job etc, whereas Duolingo gets whimsical and speaks of aliens, witches, ducks, owls etc.

But the Hawaiian tree and Esperanto trees are both very small in comparison. So it really depends with Duolingo on the language in question.

Sodalis

I wanted to correct your wrongs, but then I realized all of it are wrong.

p

" I Honestly Wouldn’t Use Either Of Them"

As I learned several languages with Duolingo, and it's free. It's your choice.

When you say "Duolingo is not free", people should stop reading your article at this point.

" those answers you give are actually passed on and sold to major corporations."

Ridiculous. I answered "mi gato es negro", and the majors want my answer!!!!!
I just wonder what they could make this that.


Seriously, write a better article, and use the service you are describing.
It's not a problem if you don't like a service, everyone is different, but I suspect you were paid by Babbel here, and you couldn't find good things to say.

The translations were sold in a previous version of Duolingo, and it was called "immersion", but you don't know it, because you never used this site.
All the courses contain the translations, and the sentences to translate. So, the system is able to find in its database if your translation is correct.

But you would realize that if you had used the software...

For instance, if I write "el gato es negro", Duo has the translation "The cat is black", and compare with your answer.

Nothing can be sold, and if it was, it would make no difference.
But if they don't have the translations yet, it's the most magical software in the universe, because it's able to give you a correction, when you mistranslated, and the correction comes from nowhere, according to you! Magical!!!

Ed T.

And this is a Language Learning site?? Rather dubious, given the grossly inadequate research evidenced in the post. Surely Donovan couldn't be biased ??

Noraiashraf

Thanks for telling us "how you earn?". But don't be so rude towards duolingo. It taught me seven languages within 3 years and I am fluent in 4 already(My english is at 7 number in fluency) in which I write articles and talk to local peoples while travelling in different countries. I have read many articles of yours but didn't expect this. I think you should try at least one language on duolingo then you will get to know. And know one thing: Babbel Sucks

The N

Do you have some secrets to how you learned seven languages in three years? do you mind giving me some tips? it sounds amazing!!!👍

George DW

Useless post unfortunately. Blaming Babbel for spending to much on advertising .. well why shouldn't they? It's how a business works. The reviews speak for themselves and I personally enjoy it. I use both platforms and find that Babbel is more serious as well. Learning and explaining a lot more regarding grammar. Duolingo is easier and more fun at times. But after using it for over a year, I still feel I can't speak much. Good to learn some new words though.

Regina Neal

I use Duolingo and love it. I don't care about the incredibly babyish UI. When you are first learning something, we need to learn like a child. I tried Babbel and did not like it at all. Duolingo has added so much more to the learning. I cover my computer screen or turn my phone sideways to listen. This has helped me a lot. My only issue with Duolingo is when it speaks it does linking of words and dipthongs but so far I have not found this type of info in their material. I researched , found, and studied this material outside of Duolingo.

K.A.E.

The comparison works for language that are covered by both apps. However, Duolingo offers languages that are not available at other platforms. So, for my husband, who is learning Ukrainian, Duolingo is the default winner. I think it’s valuable to recognize that for English/Spanish/German/Mandarin/Russian there are many options, and it’s worth celebrating when a company develops a resource for other languages.

Nadia

I personally don’t care if they make money off of my answers. It sounds like Duolingo is pretty much a genius!!!!
I totally understand your ethical concern about that. It seems to me, that what Duolingo should do is forewarn people before they take lessons from them.
But I have also found that Duolingo is actually helpful😊👍

Mark

This article is inaccurate and biased. I have been using several apps to learn Spanish over the past three years. Duolingo offers a very comprehensive way to build vocabulary and grammar without parting with cash. Their ethos is to provide free language learning, sure, with a few adverts like most apps. It is a threat to people like the writer of this article who derive income from teaching languages and writing nonsense such as this without clearly using the software. Just give it a go, it's one of the most successful apps in the world for good reason!

BassFace

"But one thing I’ve been pointing out lately is that Duolingo is not free.

Here’s how Duolingo works:

Every time you go on their platform to learn a language and fill out exercises (fill-in-the-blanks) and so on, those answers you give are actually passed on and sold to major corporations."

Okay, 1. this is the epitome of a tinfoil-hat conspiracy, and 2. do you understand what free means?? You don't *have* to pay a cent out of pocket. That. Is. Free.

Sue Sommer

Just a note from one educator to another, Donovan: “less” refers to quantities one cannot specifically count; “fewer” is an amount one can count. EX: There is less rainwater on this window than on that one V.S. There are fewer drops of rain here than there.
Not a criticism — I like learning new things, and I gather you do as well. All the best.
(The Bugaboo Review, New World Library)

M Ryan

I spent approx $60 for 6 months of Duolingo Plus and it is one of the worst purchases I ever made.

The repetitive typing is tedious, time consuming, and made me dread wanting to learn better Spanish.

Be prepared to have to type "por favor" more times than you ever thought possible before advancing any levels. I expected repetition, but that course took it to an indescribably frustrating experience.

Using Duolingo is horrible. Paying for it makes me feel like a fool.

Kaalen

Well then forget about learning languages. You will not find anything easier than Duolingo. And are you really serious Duolingo Spanish in particular is by far the best product you will ever find. Should I list the benefits and strength of Duolingo. And by the way this guy who writes about Duolingo and says it is inferior to Duolingo is not credible. He has no idea what he’s talking about!

suzuki

yesyesyesyesyes. duolingo doesn't even make sense. i checked the arabic course and u learn the letters and then it just shoves random stuff in ur face, like cold wet fish.

Lois Griffin

Its not "less" languages...its "fewer" languages. I would think a professional reviewer would have better grammar/usage skills. Anyway I came here because I currently use duolingo and I think it has problems so I'm looking for another app....I really dont like the whole immersion thing. I prefer actually being taught the skills and reasons for things first before being quizzed. The way some of these apps teach seems a bit backwards to me. Thank god im not a beginner or id be in realy trouble with these apps. Also on duo I tested out into the intermediate classes supposedly yet all the "lessons" include super begginer stuff like learning words like madre and padre and basic numbers like one two three! That's a total waste of my time as I'm intermediate, not beginner. I'm looking for an app that works more like a regular highschool spanish class. I want to be TAUGHT, not just left on my own to figure it out based on getting things wrong or right on quizzes. you cant not teach about conjugation and expect people 2 just understand all the rules about it by occassionally seeing those words used in sentences. Looks like this is gonna be harder than I thought

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein