How Duolingo turned me into a monster
It’s a story about many things. It’s about Duolingo, of course – it’s in the title. But it’s Really a story of doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
It’s also a story about how gamification can quickly turn a thing into a another thing. And a story about how I’m a complete idiot. That I have no idea what I’m talking about – or what I’m doing – and no one should listen to my advice on anything.
But let’s start with the Duolingo part.
At the end of October, I decided to start studying Spanish on Duolingo. It was a good decision because learning a new language is fun and rewarding. But it was also a terrible decision because I was literally returning from visiting my family in Chile – a Spanish-speaking country – wasting one of the four or five times in my life when the ability to speak Spanish would have come in handy.
But the truth was that I wanted to learn Spanish because, while visiting my family – who had spent 10 months working in Chile – I was inspired by how quickly they had acclimatized. Around this time, my sister-in-law went from having next to no knowledge of Spanish to handling every situation using a language she was learning on the fly. She started using Duolingo. So I thought, hmmm, maybe I could do that?
It was also a decision related to a productivity boost. Thanks to the jet lag (from the aforementioned foreign trip), I woke up very early, around 5 or 6 am. It was good ! I was doing lots of things. Not necessarily work stuff, but exercise stuff, life stuff. So I made a little deal with myself: for the first 30 minutes or so, as soon as I woke up, I was diving into Duolingo.
Duolingo, an app designed to help people learn any of 40 languages, is hugely popular. It was named Apple’s Best App of 2013 and has over 50 million users. Duolingo, with its patented green owl mascot, has penetrated popular culture to its core. Saturday Night Live even did a skit on it in 2019.
Several studies testify to its effectiveness as a learning tool. One found Duolingo to be just as effective as classroom learning. But not all studies agree. Steven Sacco, a retired language teacher, spent 300 hours learning Swedish on Duolingo but still managed to fail the final exam of an introductory college course.
None of this deterred me. At first I was going hard. I spent about an hour each morning going through the early lessons. It was incredibly addicting. I had basic knowledge of Spanish (hola, amigos!), so I was passing with near 100% accuracy, a gigantic ego boost that came with a hazy sense of accomplishment.
Those fuzzy feelings were reinforced by all the video game crap that Duolingo constantly fed me. Experience points and gems – whatever they did or what they meant – I gobbled them up like a deranged turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me feel superficially productive. Yes Master. In truth. Give me that serotonin. Let me suck on this strange green owl’s pacifier. I will engorge myself with its hollow and forbidden pleasures. I will drink it neat.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about my Duolingo obsession: while I was hoarding the gems at 6 a.m., I had a human woman, sleeping in my room, who wasn’t just teaching languages like his full-time job., but speaks spanish. Fluently.
Instead of asking this grown, real woman who lives in my house to help me learn Spanish, I sat hunched over my phone, with the posture of an anxious chimpanzee, and acquired 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 had learned Spanish. I completely froze. This woman did not speak the Duolingo language. She spoke the language of the real world in real words, and I was woefully ill-equipped to respond.
But that mattered little. I was hardly ashamed of my incompetence. By then, I had become a gaunt, hollowed-out XP junkie sustained only by the endless accumulation of pinball scores in Duolingo. The Spaniard was out. Winning was all that mattered.
I was particularly fascinated by Duolingo’s league system.
Duolingo allows its users to compete in a series of leagues, similar to those you might find in video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You start in “Bronze”. But if you rack up enough XP, you can get promoted to higher and more competitive leagues. There are 10 in total, all of which seem to be named Pokemon games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl and so on.
The big daddy league is the diamond league. It’s where the big boys play, but even getting to that point is tough. These leagues are difficult and some participants clearly have other things to do than toil in the Duolingo XP mines. I discovered weird little techniques, just to be able to compete. I would quickly run through the lessons, earn a double 15 minute XP boost, then max out that time by running through the easy “history” lessons for 80XP per pop.
If that sounds like gibberish to you, congratulations on being an actualized human being. I, on the other hand, got off on erasing innocent men, women, and children from the Duolingo leaderboards. I have become the most toxic bastard in the world. If Duolingo sent me a message saying I was knocked out of my top spot, I would come back as a despised idiot and go nuclear on anyone who dared challenge my Duolingo supremacy. I won’t leave until the entire Sapphire League is burnt to ashes.
lift the curse
But then one day…I just quit.
I had a good reason. It was around Christmas. My Scottish family, who I hadn’t seen in over four years thanks to COVID, flew to Sydney, Australia to visit me over the holidays. We had planned so much that I barely had time to check my phone.
That’s when Duolingo got a little… weird.
Like a rejected lover, Duolingo began messaging me incessantly, via a series of increasingly aggressive notifications begging for my return. I watched in horror as a mobile phone app went through the stages of grief in its attempt to get me back. Like a partner in need calling you 10 minutes after texting, Duolingo started texting me emails when I did not respond to notifications. It was a brutal onslaught that only served to underscore how twisted my Duolingo obsession once was.
After basically ghosting Duolingo for about three weeks, I received a hilariously somber note: “These reminders don’t seem to be working. We’ll stop sending them for the moment.”
And, sure enough, the next day, Duolingo sent me another notification and an email.
I never came back. The curse has been lifted. The seduction techniques that Duolingo once used to good effect – XP, gems, leagues – no longer have a hold on me. My series is dead. I’m free.
For now, my days of being gaslit by a weird green digital owl are long gone.
All that remains: the decaying tendrils of the methods used to trap me, my inner monologue trying to make sense of it all. As someone insensitive to the effects of gamification, I’m surprised it worked so effectively. If it was Call of Duty or FIFA, the endless spiral of rising numbers would have had little effect on me. But on Duolingo, an app designed to teach me something tangentially related to self-improvement, the lure was impossible to resist.
Lesson learned. Or, in this case, a kind of lesson learned.
Has my Spanish improved? Yes and no.
I learned a few words and tweaked some aspects of my clumsy grammar. But I suspect that if my wife came out of her home office, any second, 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, resurrected, like a cursed, vaulted Gollum, I’d probably launch Duolingo, completely on autopilot, and find myself sucked back into the abyss again.
Originally published January 17, 2023.
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