Duolingo and its effect on language learning (part 1)
When I started Duolingo’s Russian course, I was under the impression that it was just a fad. I would learn the occasional word and phrase and impress other people as well as myself. Inspired by Bald and Bankrupt, I saw the post-Soviet countries as an adventure and my plan was to learn just enough Russian to get by in these territories. It was an indulgence — a party trick. And then it became a commitment.
Part of the reason why it became something more has to do with the way that Duolingo works. It’s not the only tool I use to learn Russian — I also have a Russian teacher whom I meet twice a week and I watch (…) and use (…) to memorise new vocabulary. I am confident that this combination of learning resources will bring me at least to a semi-conversational level sometime soon. However, Duolingo’s role in my language learning journey intrigues me.
The user’s first experience
The moment you select a new language (e.g. Russian), you will start your first Duolingo ‘lesson’. At first, this will be a set of multiple-choice questions where you will choose the right translation for each Russian word or phrase and vice versa. The first lesson will teach you everyday essentials. ’Hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ among others.
A few things happen with every right answer — your progress bar will fill up, the translated/non-translated text will turn green, a toaster will pop up at the bottom of the screen congratulating you and a twinkling sound effect will ring. The app gives you enough hints to make it hard to even get a wrong answer — you can click any word in a sentence to glean its meaning or translation. Duolingo is forgiving at first. Sometimes the exercise will feature a trademarked animated character (e.g. a goth teenager, gym teacher, bear, Sikh, etc.) who will celebrate your progress.
Once you’ve completed the lesson, you’ll be treated to a triumphant trumpeting and will be egged on to start the next lesson. That’s when you catch your first glimpse of the scope of your Duolingo course. The next few lessons might revolve around themes like ‘people’, ‘food’ and grammatical tenses.
Then you’re also introduced to the drawbacks of Duolingo’s free tier.
How it works from here
There are a finite number of mistakes you can make in a day — these are represented with the universal heart icon signifying lives — before you need to replenish them. You won’t run out of lives during your first few lessons — they’re designed to be accommodating — but your course will get harder. The app will also pepper you with ads — some static, others video-based — and provide you with incentives to watch them. These include extra lives.
This is the freemium model applied to language learning. By default, this business practice makes me uncomfortable in how games that use it bill themselves as accessible, hook the everyman in and siphon him out of his money in exchange for extra benefits, lives, etc. Duolingo’s saving grace in adopting aspects of this model, however, is that the main thing it sells you is a subscription to Duolingo Premium.
The app encourages commitment — each consecutive day in which the user completes a Duolingo lesson counts towards a ‘streak’ signified by a fire icon. This keeps the user coming back his course. Losing the streak is deflating. If you have push notifications on for your phone application, Duolingo will barrage you with reminders to keep the streak going (there’ve been famous memes about how insistent they sound, to the point where the Duolingo mascot has been personified as someone willing to murder you for missing a Spanish lesson). However, it’s hard to commit for long — and the mistakes pile up, especially if you’ve chosen a challenging course like Russian — without giving in and committing to Duolingo Premium.