i have a certain fondness for duolingo:
i’ve liked the idea of learning japanese for 30 years or so. but language learning was scary due to bad experiences at school. with duo i could just start.
i was broke: i was getting room and board, and wasn’t in a bad place or anything, but i didn’t have any money of my own. in particular not to spend on a whim. with duo, the whole course is free.
and i had no idea about how to learn japanese. but i knew about duo from friends.
so when i got a cough and a fever in march 2020 (very early in the pandemic) and was spending 2 weeks in isolation in a room which had a bed, a chair and wifi, duo was accessible.
without duo, i simply wouldn’t have started learning japanese.
does duo have many flaws? of course it does. i was getting additional ressources from day 2, and without them i wouldn’t have gotten as far as i have. but duo is also continuously improving their courses (japanese tree 5 is in testing currently).
does it attract lots of kids who decide to learn japanese on a whim and don’t have a clue what they’re doing? aboslutely. but i don’t think that’s a bad thing, it gives them a taste, and if they’re serious, they’ll find other better tools.
would i recommend it to anybody who is already learning japanese? definitely not. i’ve stopped using it myself (i did get my 1 year streak though).
but if somebody asked me where to start learning japanese, i’d definitely still point them at duo. it’s accessible, and it’s free. and if a month or two down the line they decide to get more serious about it, they’ll be in a much better situation to chose how to continue.