Using Duolingo to Learn a New Language Can Keep Your Brain Sharp

An older adult female wearing earbuds and looking at her smartphone.


Key Takeaways

  • Learning a second language appears to help preserve the healthy functioning of the brain—even if you don’t become fluent in that language.
  • A Canadian research group found that learning a language using a phone app was just as good as a brain training app at preserving working memory and executive function, which includes abilities like staying focused and managing daily activities.
  • More participants who used the language app reported that they enjoyed the experience compared to those who used the brain training app.

A small new study shows that using a smartphone app to learn a second language appears to improve brain function. It also appears that the act of learning a new language—rather than being fluent in it—is what helps boost cognition.

Being bilingual has previously been associated with a delayed onset of dementia and improvement in what is called executive function (a set of mental skills that help people focus, follow directions, and manage their daily lives).

Brain training apps are intended to build up cognitive skills and prevent loss of executive function, but the researchers found that the studies on them have shown mixed results. The new study’s goal was to determine if learning a second language also helped people with these tasks.

Brain Training Apps vs. Language Learning Apps

The study evaluated 76 people who were randomly assigned to use either a brain training app or a language learning app to learn Spanish for 16 weeks. A third group was told that they were on a waiting list to start the study and they served as the control group.

The researchers chose Spanish because it is a language that many people want to learn and because Duolingo has a well-developed program for it. French was ruled out because it is an official language of Canada and is taught in all schools there.

The participants were between the ages of 65 and 75, spoke only one language, and had never formally studied Spanish or studied any other language for at least 10 years. All the participants were cognitively normal.

The smartphone language learning app used is Duolingo, while the brain training app is BrainHQ by Posit Science. Both are self-directed, allowing users to interact with them at their own pace. All of the participants were asked to spend 30 minutes a day, five days a week, using the apps.

Before and after the 16 weeks, the researchers assessed the participants’ performance on tasks that were similar to the brain training exercises used in Brian HQ.

The study was funded in part by Duolingo but the company had no role in the study design, analysis, or interpretation of results.

What the Findings Mean

The participants who used the brain training app were expected to do well in the testing because that was what they had been learning and practicing for 16 weeks.

Ellen Bialystok, PhD, a research professor in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto and an author of the study, tells Verywell that “the prediction for the Duolingo group was that they would be somewhere in between but maybe not as good as brain training, but hopefully better than doing nothing."

What was surprising was how well the participants who used the language app did. “What we found was that the Duolingo group was just as good as brain training—with one exception," says Bialystok.

The exception? The improvement of processing speed for certain exercises, which was a specific goal of the brain training app. “But aside from that," says Bialystok "on the cognitive component of these tasks, the Duolingo group was just as good as the brain-training group.”

Learning, Not Fluency

None of the participants who used the language app became fluent in Spanish, but Bialystok says that "there was no correlation between their final Spanish score and their cognitive scores."

According to Bialystok, that finding is important because the "study came out of the body of research showing that people who are actively bilingual, and use two languages in their daily lives, especially over a long period of time, typically perform these tasks better than monolingual people.”

Therefore, the benefit in this case did not come from becoming fluent in Spanish but from actively learning a second language.

Ellen Bialystok, PhD

It's the journey, not the destination—the act of learning the language and using all of your brain to learn the language.

— Ellen Bialystok, PhD

“Since the participants in this study did not become bilingual, they point to an additional source for these effects," says Bialystok. "The effects came from engaging in the difficult process of learning the language. It's the journey, not the destination—the act of learning the language and using all of your brain to learn the language.”

“This is really important work,” Nina Kraus, PhD, Hugh Knowles Professor of communication sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, tells Verywell. "A lot of the work in bilingualism has been done on people who already speak another language, or they've been raised with a couple of languages. This really takes the important question of ‘What about an adult who wants to start and learn another language?’”

Kraus’s work centers on the effects of sound and hearing on the brain, to which bilingualism and learning a language tie in.

“It's important to think that the hearing brain doesn't work in isolation," says Kraus. "The hearing brain biologically engages, how we think, how we feel, how we move and how we coordinate information from other senses."

A language learning app involves making connections between sound and meaning, which Kraus says means that “you are going to be strengthening the so-called executive function or thinking cognitive skills.”

An Enjoyable Experience

When the study was complete, the participants were asked whether they enjoyed using the apps. The results were mixed but showed the researchers a lot about the experience.

“The brain training people grumbled and the Duolingo people loved it," says Bialystok. “They found it engaging and motivating and said they were going to recommend it to their friends.”

Enjoyment and motivation are important. Bialystok says that to get the "whole-brain workout, you've got to give people something that will engage them." And this is something people seem to want to do.

What This Means For You

New research has shown that learning a second language can boost your cognitive function even if you do not achieve fluency. It can also be an enjoyable experience, especially if you find a fun and easy way to learn a new language, like a smartphone app.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Diamond A. Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology. 2013;64(1):135-168. doi. 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750

  2. Meltzer JA, Kates Rose M, Le AY, et al. Improvement in executive function for older adults through smartphone apps: a randomized clinical trial comparing language learning and brain trainingAging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. Published online October 25, 2021:1-22. doi:10.1080/13825585.2021.1991262

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.