This is a story about a lot of things. It’s about the Duolingo app – it’s obvious – that’s in the headline. But it is truly A story about doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
It’s also a story about how gamification can quickly turn one thing into a… last something. And a story about being a complete idiot. I have no idea what I’m talking about – or what I’m doing – and that nobody should listen to my advice about anything at all.
But let’s start with the Duolingo part.
At the end of October, I decided to start studying Spanish on Duolingo. This was a good decision because learning a new language is fun and rewarding. But it was also a terrible decision because I just got back from visiting family in Chile – a Spanish speaking country – wasted one of four or five times in my entire life where being able to speak Spanish would have been useful.
But the truth is, I wanted to learn Spanish because, while visiting family – who had spent 10 months working in Chile – I was inspired by how quickly they had adapted. In that time, my sister-in-law went from having close to zero knowledge of Spanish to handling every situation using a language she was learning on the go. I’ve started using Duolingo. So I thought, Hmmm, maybe I can do that?
It was also a decision associated with a production hit. Thanks to jetlag (from the aforementioned overseas trip) I was getting up really early, around 5 or 6 in the morning, which was fine! I was getting a lot of things done. Not necessarily work things, but exercises, life things. So I made a little deal with myself: For the first 30 minutes or so, as soon as I woke up, I’d dive into Duolingo.
Duolingo is an app designed to help people learn any of 40 languages, and it’s extremely popular. It was named Apple’s Best App of 2013 and has more than 50 million users. Duolingo, along with its patented green owl mascot, has permeated popular culture to its core. Saturday Night Live has sketched on it in 2019.
Multiple studies Talk about its effectiveness as an educational tool. Someone found that Duolingo was just as effective for classroom learning. But not all studies agree. Stephen Sacco, a retired language teacher, spent 300 hours learning Swedish on Duolingo but still managed to fail the final exam for an introductory university course.
None of this deterred me. At first I went difficult. I would spend nearly an hour every morning, scrolling through the early lessons. It was incredibly addictive. I had a basic knowledge of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I was cruising around with near 100% accuracy, which was a huge ego boost that came with vague feelings of accomplishment.
These vague feelings are reinforced by all the video games Duolingo is constantly feeding me. Experience points and gems – no matter what they did or meant – devoured them like a muddled turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me feel superficially productive. Yes sir. truly. Feed me that serotonin. Let me suck on the nipple of this strange green owl. I would be envious of her forbidden, hollow pleasures. I will drink it dry.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about my obsession with Duolingo: While I was collecting gems at 6 a.m., I had a human wife, sleeping in my bedroom, who was just not used to teaching languages as her full-time job.And But he speaks Spanish. Fluently.
Instead of asking this down-to-earth, down-to-earth woman who lives in my house to help me learn Spanish, I sat hunched over my phone, with a tense monkey posture, gaining gems and experience points — or XP — at a frightening rate.
Did it help me learn Spanish? It’s hard to say. Eventually learning Spanish ceased to be the goal. I remember one of my friends, whom I was seeing for the first time since my return from Chile, tried to speak Spanish to me.
She too was learning Spanish. completely froze. This woman did not speak Duolingo. She was speaking real world language with real words, and I was woefully ill-prepared to respond.
But it hardly mattered. I was hardly ashamed of my disqualification. By then, I’d become a lean, hollow, XP-addicted junkie, sustained only by accumulating infinite pinball scores in Duolingo. Spanish was out. Winning was all that mattered.
I was particularly impressed with Duolingo’s league system.
Duolingo allows its users to compete with each other in a series of leagues, similar to those you might find in video games like Overwatch or DOTA. Start at “Bronze”. But if you collect enough XP, you can get promoted to higher and more competitive leagues. There are 10 in total, and they all look like they are named after the Pokemon games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, and so on.
The first division of the Pope is the Diamond League. This is where the adults come into play, but even getting to that point is a challenge. These tournaments harsh And some participants clearly have holes in everything other than toiling away at the miners of Duolingo XP. I discovered some strange technologies, just so I could compete. I’d go through the lessons quickly, get a double XP boost for 15 minutes, then maximize that time by browsing easy “story” lessons for 80XP a pop.
If that sounds like a cliche to you, then congratulations on being a real human being. By contrast, I was getting my kicks from the blurring of innocent men, women, and children on the leaderboards on Duolingo. I became the most dangerous hangover alive. If Duolingo sends me a message saying I’m out of pole position, I’ll come back like a despised idiot and nuclearize anyone who dares challenge my Duolingo supremacy. I won’t leave until my entire sapphire league has been reduced to ashes.
Lift the curse
But then, one day… I just quit.
I had a good reason. It was near Christmas. My Scottish family, who I haven’t seen in over four years thanks to COVID, flew to Sydney, Australia, to visit me for the holidays. We planned so much, that I didn’t even have time to check my phone.
That was when Duolingo got a little… weird.
Like a rejected lover, Duolingo began texting me incessantly, through a series of increasingly aggressive notifications begging for my return. I watched in horror as a mobile app went through the stages of grief trying to win me back. Like a needy partner who called you 10 minutes after sending a text, Duolingo started sending me Email messages When I did not respond to notifications. It was a brutal attack that only serves to highlight how twisted Duolingo’s obsession is.
After I’d basically shadowed Duolingo for about three weeks, I got a hilariously grim note: “Seems like these reminders aren’t working. We’re going to stop sending them.” for now. “
And of course, the next day Duolingo sent me another notification and an email.
I never returned. I lifted the curse. The seduction techniques that Duolingo once used to great effect — XP, gems, and trophies — no longer hold sway over me. My line is dead. I’m free.
For now, my days of being lit up by a blissfully grumpy, green digital owl are over.
All that remains: the rotting tendrils of the methods used in my company, my inner monologue trying to make sense of it all. As someone drugged by gamification effects, I’m amazed it worked so effectively. If this were Call of Duty or FIFA, the endless spiral of numbers pinging version to top would have little effect on me. But on Duolingo, an app designed to teach me something tangentially related to self-improvement, the temptation was impossible to resist.
Lesson learned. Or, in this case, some kind of lesson learned.
Has my Spanish improved? Yes and no.
I learned a few words and brushed up on aspects of my clumsy grammar. But I suspect that if, at this very moment, my wife came out of her office at home, and spoke to me in Spanish, I would freak out. I would disintegrate into a pile of clothes and dust like the Wicked Witch of the West.
But then, revived, like a cursed, bent Gollum, I’d probably turn Duolingo on, completely on autopilot and find myself plunging back into the abyss.