Duolingo: marketing that goes too far

In the world of online language learning, Duolingo stands out for its entertaining approach, which has earned it 600 million users. However, behind its success lie questions about its educational effectiveness and the implications of its marketing strategies. In a word, is Duolingo increasingly borderline?


  1. It’s time to practice!
  2. Duolingo, the miracle app(?)
  3. Yes, but the statistics…
  4. Embracing meme culture
  5. Humour that goes too far
  6. Conclusion
  7. Sources

It’s time to practice!

The key to Duolingo is to practise little but often. This is the principle of microlearning, which is itself based on the Ebbinghaus curve, or forgetting curve: frequent revision is the most beneficial method for retaining information in the long term. And to make sure users keep up this pace, the app sends them reminder notifications. Every day, they appear on the user’s phone to make sure they do their lessons. Those notifications have become famous for a variety of reasons… but not always good ones.

Graph showing the forgetting curve

Duolingo’s notifications are designed to ensure that as many users as possible maintain their streak, i.e. the number of consecutive days spent on the app. In other words, the time spent addressing the forgetting curve.

Examples of reminder notifications sent by the app.
Examples of reminder notifications sent by the app.
Examples of reminder notifications sent by the app.
More examples. The second shows the kind of passive-aggressive tone often called out in Duo, and to which I’ll return later.

Series are one of Duo’s gamification mechanics, and it’s not uncommon to see users proudly showcase a series of tens, hundreds or even thousands of days. Rewards, rankings, divisions and challenges with friends are involved, with different types of prizes up for grabs for regular users, helping to make Duo the perfect blend between a game and an educational app.

A 156-day streak on Duolingo
A 1,400-day streak on Duolingo

On paper, the notifications are in the user’s interest: be loyal to the app, and your learning will be optimal. And truthfully, Duolingo teaches key elements of the user’s target language in a sustainable way, a revolutionary method for many. On the other hand, notifications and gamification have another objective: to maximise the number of active users. Using the app is obviously presented as a win-win situation, where both Duo and the user benefit from meeting up often. Fair enough – but different issues are involved.

Duolingo, the miracle app(?)

Many users (especially those from a monolingual culture, and therefore many North Americans) are led to believe that Duo can be sufficient for learning a foreign language up to a conversational level. This is not entirely untrue, as Duo can indeed enable its users to reach a remarkably advanced level given the educational minimalism of its approach. But by teaching such phrases and vocabulary that the learner never feels overwhelmed, and thus making learning fun and effortless, the app’s teaching is lacking and decontextualised. What’s missing from the app’s content is the human and social aspect, and this incompleteness reduces languages to cold, systematic objects (which, in reality, they are really not).

Driven to learn by the mechanisms of the app rather than by overflowing motivation, users thus tend to be devoid of method and external resources. Indeed, a good duolinguist must be able to rely on themself and do their own research, as the app only scratches the surface of languages, and can even be discouraging to use if you rely on it alone.

Those beginners visit the r/French subreddit, designed for learning French and of which I’m head moderator, almost every day. Their questions are basic and recurring, often accompanied by a screenshot of the issue that they’re confused about in the app. Easy to solve with a simple Google search, these questions make the community monotonous and annoying to use for active members. They are often met with coldness, sometimes mockery. We’ve had to adapt: as per our rules, basic and recurring questions are to be removed, in exchange for which we provide an FAQ that covers the main points of French that Duolingo doesn’t teach, or teaches badly.

Someone wrongly translating "We are going to travel with them" as "Nous allons voyager avec ils" in French
An example of a recurring question: the use of tonic pronouns « moi, toi, eux » etc. is something that traditional French learning teaches early on, and hundreds of free resources available online talk about it. This learner, who probably uses Duolingo as their main source of learning (if not their only source), probably doesn’t even know what tonic pronouns are, because Duo doesn’t teach grammar. Unable to research the topic themself, they ask in good faith a recurring question on the subreddit, the kind of which we unfortunately choose to delete.
Someone wrongly translating "I think that TV series are better than movies" as "Je pense que les serials est mieux que les filmes" in French
« Mieux or meilleur? » another question of good faith that is often asked, as this is a confusing bit for many French learners. We sometimes allow publications of this kind, where neither option is wrong, but where other errors within the sentence deserve an in-depth, personalised explanation.

The problem is not North American monolingualism, as some are too quick to conclude. Rather, it is Duolingo’s failure to communicate the fact that the app alone is not enough to learn a language in all its complexity. Unfortunately, Duo is reluctant to direct learners away from the app, preferring to dig its own hole and sweep new polyglot apprentices into a narrow and mechanical vision of languages, when in reality they are infinitely rich and aesthetically pleasant systems.

The users I’m talking about are probably not in the majority (many autonomous duolinguists who use diversified methods, like myself before I switched to Busuu, won’t be asking these kinds of questions on social networks), but they’re not rare either. In this context, where Duo’s shortcomings have major consequences for online language learning, the way it hogs users’ attention is questionable at the least. With this kind of self-serving misinformation, even if it’s merely by omitting the risks rather than by outright lying, Duo’s marketing is very successful in passing off the app as a miracle solution, even though it restricts our field of vision on the methods, resources and pleasures that can be involved in learning a second language.

Yes, but the statistics…

Duo takes the science behind the notifications very seriously. By the company’s own admission, they are the outcome of an intense experimentation campaign; in other words, they are literally at the cutting edge of what technology can offer to ensure maximum user loyalty. The company is proud of this, as blog posts and YouTube videos regularly remind us of the big brains it employs to take care of ours. While information technology is not my speciality, this article looks into Duo’s approach to notifications, using machine learning and multi-armed bandits.

Personally, I can’t help but find the approach disturbing, because this goes further than self-serving disinformation. By presenting notifications as a field mastered to perfection, and showing how seriously they take their mission of capturing our attention, Duo makes it harder to consider that this could be a bad thing – an idea presented with confidence, even a bad one, always seems more attractive. In short, the engineering performance covers for Duolingo’s paedagogical shortcomings, and this, in essence, is not far off from trying to manipulate the user.

Embracing the meme culture

Duo’s push notifications first became famous for their sometimes condescending insistence. This interpretation was collectively exaggerated, partly by way of memes. Over time, however, notifications came to be associated more and more with a slightly too well-owled machine, sorry, well-oiled*, designed to study the user’s limits as closely as possible in order to exploit their patience to the fullest. The character of Duo the Owl took on an increasingly threatening image within the community through satire, which went so far as to portray it in criminal terms: the owl, as it were, is capable of tracking you down in real life, threatening you, kidnapping your family, blackmailing you… An exaggeration, of course, but a meaningful, caustic one, heavy with pejorative undertones: a caricature. The tone has become all the more grating as we now see more clearly this very real objective of squeezing the user like an orange.

Today, the meme culture is attacking Duo from every angle: notifications, content, marketing… But what’s most telling is the fact that Duolingo is embracing these memes, oblivious to the fact (or pretending to be) that the app is being caricatured for a reason. This happened with the notifications: whether or not they were deliberately passive-aggressive from the get-go, Duo has done everything to ensure that they continue to be the talk of the town, even if that means playing with the line a bit more each time.

The Duo owl entering a house at night with the text "coming soon" above
One of the memes created by Duo, based on the idea of a criminal owl.
Another example of Duo’s communication, in which the character makes itself guilty of harassment, intimidation and invasion of privacy.

Humour that goes too far

By creating its own memes and by playing into the hands of the young, Duo’s communication uses a lingo favoured by the age group most represented on the app (according to Duo itself in 2022, around 41% of users were aged between 13 and 22; by adding the 22-29 range, we reach 58%). It embraces mocking humour so wholeheartedly, in fact, that it gives off the strange impression of acknowledging the criticism that is (albeit more or less directly) directed at the app, but without addressing its substance and foundation. By using the same grating tone in its homemade memes, Duo trivialises grievances and even accusations from the community that are crying out to be taken seriously. Like a pat on the head of the users, with a smile and a condescending “yes, yes”.

While some of Duo’s marketing is harmless and/or funny and doesn’t warrant me getting on my virtual high horse, this trivialisation is getting increasingly borderline. For the moment, the community is still pretty enthusiastic about its content, which resonates with the values of Gen Z. I’m part of this generation and, having grown up with the freedom of the Internet, I too have a taste for making jest of ideological constraints that I consider to be artificial or authoritarian. For this reason, I’m also inclined to appreciate Duolingo’s counterpoint to traditional, serious, formal and codified advertising.

Lately however, Duo has been crossing the line more and more clearly. This was the case, for example, with this letter received in Autumn 2023 with a purchase from the Duolingo Store, where the trivialisation of harassment becomes all the more worrying because it goes beyond the screen and plays with respect for confidentiality.

A letter by Duolingo: "Duolingo store - Thank you! I hope you enjoy your purchase from my merch store. I also hope that you do your daily lessons, because if you don't... well, let's just say I know where you live now."

As for Duo’s February 12, 2024 post on its Superbowl campaign (published as I was finishing writing the French version of this article), it confirms that the firm is continuing in the same direction.

"We decided to pair the ad with a coordinated push notification, which would hit learners' phones right after the commercial aired, reinforcing the idea that Duo is always watching 👀"
"We understand our brand better than anyone. We know how to toe the line between funny and too far."
Or not.

Duolingo needs to realise that such humour, while funny when it comes from the community, is much more loaded and worrying when it comes from the company itself, which is expected to take criticism seriously and adjust its communication accordingly. Duo is trying to convince people that it can reclaim its caricature, but this process can only fuel criticisms in the long term.


A tool is never intrinsically bad, and Duo just happens to know what learners need. Perfectly designed to turn language learning into a game for young and old alike, the app enables millions of users to serenely tackle a second language. I was one of them, as it has enabled me, among other things, to achieve a fairly good level of comprehension in Swedish without having to use any other method for the language.

But the app has its limits, and Duo hardly communicates about them, preferring to develop users’ loyalty excessively on the pretext that it’s in their own interest. It’s also reluctant to direct them to other methods which many of them could benefit from. What’s more, the company cultivates the caustic humour that’s targetting it, using the communicative nature of memes and self-deprecation to gain a certain aura among 13-29 year-olds, who make up 58% of the app’s audience. In doing so, it hijacks their critical value, pretending to accept them but never addressing their legitimate substance.

By appropriating a meme culture whose propensity to exaggeration has, through humour, transformed a simple owl into a criminal icon, Duolingo recycles the humorous aspect of the caricature in its own interest, but renders its critical dimension invisible. The company has embarked on a slippery slope where the trivialisation and glorification of harassment, intimidation, blackmail, threats of kidnapping and even death are the order of the day and can only get worse. Coming from the community, it’s funny – coming from the company, it’s concerning. While we can appreciate the marketing approach for its modern aspect, it is becoming increasingly critical not to minimise the dangers it presents, as the company continues to reaffirm extremely borderline positions.

The original meme, featuring Steve Buscemi’s character in the series 30 Rock, is used to respond to people who claim to be part of a subculture they know little or nothing about.


Thanks to Chris for proofreading, and Albatros for his help with the English translation!

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