This is a story about many things. It’s about Duolingo — it’s obvious — it’s in the title. But it is really a story about doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
It is also a story of how gamification can quickly transform one thing into another something. 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 take my advice on anything.
But let’s start with the Duolingo part.
At the end of October I decided to start learning Spanish on Duolingo. It was a good decision because learning a new language is fun and useful. But it was also a terrible decision, because I had literally just returned from visiting family in Chile – a Spanish-speaking country – wasting one of the four or five times in my entire life when being able to speak Spanish would have come in handy.
But the truth was that I wanted to learn Spanish because, while visiting a family that had spent 10 months working in Chile, I was inspired by how quickly they had adapted. During that time, my daughter-in-law went from having almost zero 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?
This was also a decision related to increasing productivity. Thanks to jet lag (from the aforementioned overseas trip) I was waking up super early, around 5 or 6 in the morning. It was good! I have done many 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 dove into Duolingo.
Duolingo, an app designed to help people learn any of 40 languages, is wildly popular. It was named Apple’s best app of 2013 and has over 50 million users. Duolingo, along with its patented green owl mascot, has permeated the mainstream of popular culture. Saturday Night Live even did a sketch on it in 2019.
Numerous studies speak to its effectiveness as a training tool. One found Duolingo to be just as effective as classroom learning. But not all research agrees. Steven Sacco, a retired language professor, spent 300 hours learning Swedish on Duolingo, but still managed to fail the final exam of an introductory university course.
None of this dissuaded me. At first I went hard. I spent about an hour every morning going through the early lessons. It was incredibly addictive. I had a basic knowledge of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I was passing with almost 100% accuracy, a giant ego boost that came with fuzzy feelings of accomplishment.
These vague feelings were reinforced by all the video game crap that Duolingo constantly fed me. Experience points and gems – no matter what they did or what they meant – I gobbled them up like a crazed turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me feel superficially productive. Yes, my lord. Indeed. Give me that serotonin. Let me suck the nipple of this strange green owl. I will consume myself in its hollow, forbidden pleasures. I’ll drink it dry.
Perhaps the strangest thing about my Duolingo obsession: While I was collecting gems at 6am, I had a human wife sleeping in my bedroom who not only taught languages as a full-time job, but he speaks spanish. Free.
Instead of asking this grown-up, real-life woman who lives in my house to help me learn Spanish, I sat hunched over my phone in the pose of an anxious chimpanzee, acquiring gems and experience points—or XP—at a frightening rate.
Did it help me learn Spanish? It’s hard to say. Eventually, learning Spanish stopped being the point. I remember one of my friends, who I was seeing for the first time since I came back from Chile, tried to speak to me in Spanish.
She was also learning Spanish. I completely froze. This woman did not speak the language of Duolingo. She was speaking the language of the real world with real words and I was totally unprepared to respond.
But that didn’t matter at all. I was hardly ashamed of my incompetence. By this time, I had become a scrawny, wasted XP addict, sustained solely by the endless accumulation of pinball scores on Duolingo. The Spanish was out. Winning was all that mattered.
I was particularly fascinated by Duolingo’s league system.
Duolingo allows its users to compete against each other in a series of leagues similar to those you can find in video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You start in “Bronze”. But if you collect enough XP, you can get promoted 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 so on and so forth.
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 participants clearly have better things to do than toil in the Duolingo XP mines. I discovered little weird techniques just to be able to compete. I’d grind through the lessons quickly, earn a 15 minute double XP boost, then max out that time by grinding through the easy “story” lessons for 80 XP apiece.
If that sounds like babbling to you, congratulations on being an updated human being. In contrast, I got a kick out of wiping out innocent men, women, and children on the Duolingo leaderboards. I became the most toxic scumbag alive. If Duolingo sent me a message saying I’d been bumped from my top spot, I’d come back like a despicable idiot and target anyone who dared challenge my supremacy on Duolingo. He would not leave until all of Sapphire’s League was reduced to ashes.
Lifting 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 for the holidays. We had so much planned that I barely had time to check my phone.
Then Duolingo got a little…weird.
Like a spurned lover, Duolingo began constantly messaging me through a series of increasingly aggressive notifications, begging me to come back. I watched in horror as a cell phone app went through the stages of grief in its attempt to bring me back. Like a needy partner who calls you 10 minutes after a message, Duolingo started sending me emails when I didn’t respond to notifications. It was a brutal attack that only served to highlight how twisted my obsession with Duolingo once was.
After essentially being a ghost on Duolingo for about three weeks, I got a hilariously dark note: “These reminders don’t seem to be working. We will stop sending them for now.”
And sure enough, the next day, Duolingo sent me another notification and email.
I never came back. The curse has been lifted. The seduction techniques that Duolingo once used to great effect – the XP, the gems, the slimes – no longer have me. My streak is dead. I am free.
For now, my days of being illuminated by a strange, green, digital owl are blissfully over.
All that’s left: the decaying tentacles of the methods used to trap me, my inner monologue trying to make sense of it all. As someone who is numb to the effects of gamification, I’m surprised it works so effectively. If this was Call of Duty or FIFA, the endless spiral of numbers going up wouldn’t have much of an effect on me. But on Duolingo, an app designed to teach me something related to self-improvement, the lure was impossible to resist.
Lesson learned. Or, in this case, sort of a lesson learned.
Did my Spanish get better? Yes and no.
I learned a few words and improved aspects of my clumsy grammar. But I suspect that if my wife came out of her home office right this second and spoke to me in Spanish, I would go crazy. I would crumble into a pile of clothes and dust like the Wicked Witch of the West.
But then, reanimated like a cursed, hunched-over Gollum, I’d probably fire up Duolingo, completely on autopilot, and find myself sucked into the abyss again.