Duolingo turned me into a monster
- March 20, 2023
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This is a story about many things. It’s about Duolingo – that’s obvious – that’s in the headline. But it’s really 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 another. And a story about how I’m a complete idiot. That I have no idea what I’m talking about – or doing – and that no one should ever listen to my advice.
But let’s start with the Duolingo part.
At the end of October I decided to learn Spanish with Duolingo. It was a good decision because learning a new language is fun and rewarding. But it was also a terrible decision because I had literally just come back from visiting family in Chile — a Spanish-speaking country — and wasted one of the four or five times in my entire life where being able to speak Spanish would have been useful.
Don’t fight with monsters lest you become a monster yourself.
But the truth was, I wanted to learn Spanish because when I visited my family – who had worked in Chile for 10 months – I was inspired by how quickly they had settled in. During that time, my sister-in-law went from having almost zero knowledge of Spanish to handling any situation with a language she learned on the fly. She started with Duolingo. So I thought, hmmm, maybe I could do that?
It was also a decision that came with a productivity boost. Thanks to jet lag (from the overseas trip mentioned above) I woke up super early, around 5 or 6 am. It was good! I have done many things. Not necessarily work things, but training things, life things. So I made a little deal with myself: for the first 30 minutes or so, as soon as I woke up, I was immersed in Duolingo.
Duolingo, an app designed to help people learn one of 40 languages, is extremely popular. It was voted Apple’s best app of 2013 and has well over 50 million users. Duolingo, along with its patented green owl mascot, has penetrated popular culture to the core. Saturday Night Live even did a sketch on it in 2019.
Several studies support its effectiveness as a learning tool. Duolingo was found to be as effective as learning in a classroom. But not all studies agree. Steven Sacco, a retired language professor, spent 300 hours learning Swedish in Duolingo but still managed to fail the final exam of an introductory university course.
None of that put me off. In the beginning I went hard. I spent about an hour every morning blowing through the early lessons. It was incredibly addicting. I had a basic knowledge of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I flew through with near 100% accuracy, a giant ego boost coupled with fuzzy senses of accomplishment.
Those fuzzy feelings were compounded by all the video game shit Duolingo kept feeding me. Experience points and gems – no matter what they did or what they meant – I gobbled them up like a mad turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me feel productive on the surface. Yes Master. verily. give me the serotonin Let me suck this bizarre green owl’s teat. I am inundated with its hollow, forbidden pleasures. I’ll drink it dry.
If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss looks back.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about my Duolingo obsession, while I was collecting the gems at 6am, I had a human female sleeping in my bedroom who not only taught languages as a full-time job, but also speaks Spanish. Fluently.
Instead of asking this full grown, real woman who lives in my house to help me learn Spanish, I sat over my phone with the attitude of a scared chimpanzee, accumulating gems and experience points – or XP – at a terrifying rate.
Did it help me learn Spanish? It’s difficult to say. At some point, learning Spanish wasn’t that important anymore. I remember that one of my friends, whom I saw for the first time since coming back from Chile, tried to speak Spanish with me.
She too had learned Spanish. I completely frozen. This woman did not speak the language of Duolingo. She spoke the language of the real world in real words, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to respond to that.
But it hardly mattered. I was hardly ashamed of my incompetence. By this point, I had become a scrawny, drained XP addict, sustained only by the endless accumulation of pinball scores in Duolingo. Spanish was out. Only victory counted.
I was particularly fascinated by the Duolingo league system.
Duolingo allows its users to compete in a series of leagues similar to those you’ll find in video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You start in “Bronze”. But if you collect enough XP, you can advance to higher and more competitive leagues. There are 10 in total, all of which sound like they’re named after Pokemon games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, and on and on.
The Big Papa top league is the Diamond League. That’s where the big boys play, but even getting to that point is a challenge. These leagues are tough and some contestants clearly have nothing else to do but struggle in the Duolingo XP mines. I discovered bizarre little techniques just so I could compete. I’d ratchet through the lessons quickly, earn a 15 minute double XP boost, and then maximize that time by rattling through the easy “Story” lessons for 80 XP a pop.
If that sounds like gibberish to you, congratulations on being a realized person. In contrast, I got my kick wiping out innocent men, women, and children on Duolingo leaderboards. I became the most toxic scumbag in the world. If Duolingo sent me a message saying I’d been knocked off my top spot, I’d come back like a despised idiot and attack anyone who dared challenge my Duolingo superiority. I wouldn’t leave until the entire Sapphire League was reduced to ashes.
Remove the curse
But then one day…I just stopped.
I had 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 for the holidays. We had so much planned to the point that I barely had time to check my phone.
That’s when Duolingo got a little… weird.
If Duolingo sent me a message saying I’d been knocked off my top spot, I’d come back like a despised idiot and attack anyone who dared challenge my Duolingo superiority.
Like a lover scorned, Duolingo began texting me non-stop over a series of increasingly aggressive notifications asking for my return. I watched in horror as a phone app went through the stages of grief in its attempt to get me back. Like a partner in need who calls you 10 minutes after texting, Duolingo started emailing me when I didn’t respond to the notifications. It was a brutal attack that only served to highlight how twisted my duolingo obsession once was.
After ghosting Duolingo for about three weeks, I received a hilariously dark message: “These memories don’t seem to be working. We will no longer send them for the time being.”
And of course Duolingo sent me another notification and email the next day.
I have never returned. The curse has been lifted. The seduction techniques that Duolingo once used to great effect—the XP, the gems, the leagues—have lost my grip. My streak is dead. I’m free.
“Earn an additional 5XP for each lesson up to 20:00. How much can you earn?”
Video screenshot from CNET
For now, my days of being blasted by a freaky green digital owl are blissfully over.
All that’s left: the crumbling tendrils of the methods I’ve been ensnared with, my inner monologue trying to make sense of it all. As someone unfamiliar with the implications of gamification, I’m surprised it’s worked so effectively. If this was Call of Duty or FIFA, the endless spiral of numbers pinging up would have had little effect on me. But I couldn’t resist the lure of Duolingo, an app designed to teach me something directly related to self-improvement.
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 I would freak out if my wife left her home office right this second and spoke to me in Spanish. I would crumble 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 launch Duolingo completely on autopilot and be sucked back into the abyss.