What Duolingo Got Wrong With Its ChatGPT Integration


The buzz about artificial intelligence technology is spreading like wildfire, and while it has tremendous potential in many industries, there are areas in which it is simply no substitute. Language learning is one area in which AI capabilities have recently debuted — with popular language-learning app Duolingo recently announcing the integration of ChatGPT into its platform — but these features will likely not serve language learners as much as it seems.

The integration of ChatGPT technology into the Duolingo platform comes in two main forms. The “Roleplay” feature allows users to converse with an AI-powered chatbot in the language they are learning, and the “Explain My Answer” feature allows users to request an explanation of why their answer is incorrect, complete with suggestions on how to improve. Although these features may initially appeal to eager language learners, their benefits have not been as profound or well-received as Duolingo intended.

photo/ Gerd Altmann

As of April 2023, over 15,000 Duolingo users have signed a petition — sparked by a Twitter account @Duo_is_sad — asking the platform to reverse its AI chatbot and ChatGPT integration. This highlights the simple fact that Duolingo chose to implement its AI features over the wants and needs of its community, believing that AI would be able to compete with a more personalized and immersive language learning experience.

By comparison, our platform, Immerse, is committed to pioneering immersive language learning with genuine human connection built into its foundation. We know that fully immersing oneself in a new language with fluent speakers is the best way to learn it more quickly and efficiently, which is why we remain committed to personalized learning experiences for our community of users.

The failures of Duolingo’s ChatGPT integration

It is worth noting that the scenarios for Duolingo’s ChatGPT feature are still written by human experts, as are the initial responses. The AI is then prompted to follow a set of pre-selected paths. Although this does create a bountiful number of combinations, they are just that — combinations — these conversations aren’t as “customizable” as one might think. The Duolingo team still has a significant hand in guiding the conversation. 

Additionally, one of the main limitations of ChatGPT’s technology that has been criticized across industries is its sometimes frequent factual and tonal inaccuracies. Although Duolingo says it is monitoring the software for these discrepancies, with so many users, it would be impossible (and, perhaps, even unethical) to keep a keen eye on every interaction held in the app between a user and the AI. When it comes to language learning, incorrect information could not only be embarrassing, but potentially dangerous if it teaches the user to say the wrong thing.

Should that be the case, it begs the question: How would a language learner not be better off spending their money investing in a real-life language instructor, or a technology platform that offers one as a primary feature? This is what will truly provide the guidance and immersion that one needs to thrive in their language learning experience.

What language learners should instead be looking for

Studies have shown that immersion is the best way for most individuals to learn a new language. Despite its claims, the ChatGPT feature of Duolingo does not offer immersion, merely repetition. Duolingo mistakes the ability to have AI-generated conversations on a prescribed set of topics and discussion points for “immersion” when there is no better substitute for learning by speaking conversationally with people fluent in the language.

When presented with the opportunity to move its offerings forward, Duolingo had the option between choosing increased community features or pursuing AI technology. Much to the dismay of its users, Duolingo decided to cut back on many of its community-focused offerings — including its popular community forums — in preparation to push users toward its AI option. Unfortunately, the AI can only simulate conversations, rather than provide a realistic conversational experience, as its community-driven features once could.

Working with an AI-powered tool such as Duolingo Max’s ChatGPT functionality deprives language learners of the opportunity to legitimately connect with their peers, which is an essential part of the language immersion experience. Although the main focus of language immersion is to surround oneself with people who are native and fluent speakers, peers at the same (or similar) stage of their own learning process can be a tremendous resource for reinforcing learning or filling learning gaps.

Of course, the traditional method of immersion is cultural immersion, where one travels to a country with the language they learn as its native language, and learns by interacting with the locals and speaking with them in their tongue. However, in a post-Covid landscape, this type of travel is no longer as practical as it once was. Instead, language learners are looking for ways to immerse themselves without leaving the safety and comfort of their own couch. Immerse has been developed to meet this challenge.

For example, one thing Immerse offers that Duolingo lacks is a real, live language instructor. Although Duolingo’s “Explain My Answer” functionality is all well and good — giving feedback for the accuracy of responses and tips for improvement — these notes are not based on real-life experience. An instructor who is fluent in a given language and has years of experience speaking it conversationally will know the nuances and quirks of the language, which allows them to offer a more realistic, grounded level of insight.

Another key pitfall of Duolingo Max is that it also lacks customization features. Although the app can allow users to practice for however long they want, the conversations are still based on a prescribed curriculum, and therefore tend not to be particularly useful. Language learners who want to have more control over their learning experience and determine what they want to learn will find that Duolingo’s GPT-4 integration does not offer the personalization and agency they initially were promised.

If a language learner’s goal is to improve their language skills, tools like Duolingo Max and its ChatGPT-powered functionalities simply aren’t worth their money. Instead, pursue a language experience that is far more immersive and based in real-life human-to-human interaction in contextualized environments. Whether this means immersing oneself physically in the culture or immersing oneself through the virtual world, these options will offer much more bang for your buck.

By Quinn Taber, CEO — Immerse

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