June 9, 2023

It is a story about Duolingo. That is apparent. But it surely’s actually a narrative about doing the incorrect issues for the incorrect causes. 

It is a story about how gamification can quickly rework one factor into one other, utterly completely different factor. A narrative about how I’m an entire fool who has no thought what I am speaking about or doing. A narrative about how nobody ought to hearken to my recommendation about something ever.

However why do not we begin with the Duolingo half…

On the finish of October, I made a decision to begin learning Spanish on Duolingo. That was a superb determination as a result of studying a brand new language is enjoyable and rewarding. But it surely was additionally a horrible determination as a result of I might actually simply come again from visiting household in Chile, a Spanish-speaking nation, squandering one of many 4 or 5 occasions in my whole life the place the power to talk Spanish would have been helpful. 

Duolingo language education app logo

Battle not with monsters, lest you develop into a monster your self.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The reality was I needed to study Spanish as a result of, whereas visiting household – who had spent 10 months working in Chile – I might develop into impressed by how shortly they’d acclimated. In that point, my sister-in-law went from realizing near zero Spanish to dealing with each state of affairs utilizing a language she’d been studying on the fly. She received her begin utilizing Duolingo. So I assumed, hmmm, possibly I might do the very same factor?

It was additionally a call tied to a productiveness kick. Due to jetlag (from the aforementioned abroad journey) I might been waking up tremendous early, round 5 or 6 a.m. It was good! I used to be getting numerous stuff accomplished. Not essentially work stuff, however train stuff, life stuff. So I made just a little take care of myself: For the primary half-hour or so, as quickly as I wakened, I might dive into Duolingo.

Duolingo, an app designed to assist individuals study any of 40 languages, is extraordinarily fashionable. It was named Apple’s finest app of 2013 and has properly over 50 million customers. Duolingo, together with its patented inexperienced owl mascot, has penetrated fashionable tradition to its core. Saturday Night time Reside even did a sketch on it again in 2019. 

A number of research communicate to its effectiveness as a studying instrument. One discovered Duolingo was equally as efficient as studying in a classroom. However not all research agree. Steven Sacco, a retired language professor, spent 300 hours studying Swedish on Duolingo however nonetheless managed to fail the ultimate examination of an introductory college course.  

None of this dissuaded me. At first I went onerous. I spent roughly an hour each morning, blasting via the early classes. It was extremely addictive. I had a baseline data of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I used to be breezing via with near 100% accuracy, a big ego enhance that got here with fuzzy emotions of accomplishment.

These fuzzy emotions had been strengthened by all of the online game shit Duolingo always fed me. I devoured up expertise factors and gems, the sport’s in-app foreign money,  like a deranged turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me really feel superficially productive. Sure, grasp. Verily. Feed me that serotonin. Let me suck on the teat of this weird inexperienced owl. I shall develop into engorged with its hole, forbidden pleasures. I’ll drink it dry.

Diamond canine


For those who gaze lengthy into the abyss, the abyss gazes again.


Perhaps essentially the most weird factor about my Duolingo obsession: Whereas I used to be racking up the gems at 6 within the morning, I had a human spouse, sleeping in my bed room, who not solely used to show languages as her full-time job, however speaks Spanish. Fluently.

As an alternative of asking this full-grown, real-life lady who lives in my home to assist me study Spanish, I sat hunched over my cellphone, with the posture of an anxious chimp, and bought gems and expertise factors at a daunting price. 

Was it serving to me study Spanish? It is onerous to inform. Ultimately studying Spanish ceased to be the purpose. I keep in mind one among my buddies, who I used to be seeing for the primary time since getting back from Chile, tried to talk Spanish to me. 

She, too, had been studying Spanish. I utterly froze. This lady was not talking the language of Duolingo. She was talking the language of the actual world with precise phrases, and I used to be woefully unequipped to reply.

But it surely barely mattered. I used to be barely ashamed of my incompetence. By that point I might develop into a gaunt, hollowed-out XP addict solely sustained by endlessly accumulating pinball scores in Duolingo. Spanish was out. Successful was all that mattered.

I used to be particularly entranced by Duolingo’s league system. 

Duolingo permits its customers to compete with each other in a collection of leagues, much like those you would possibly discover in video video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You begin out in “Bronze.” However in case you collect sufficient XP, you’ll be able to achieve promotion to larger and extra aggressive leagues. There are 10 in complete, all of which sound like they’re named after Pokemon video games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl and so forth and so forth.

The massive papa prime league is the Diamond league. That is the place the massive boys play, however even attending to that time is difficult. These leagues are powerful and a few individuals clearly have bugger all else to do however toil within the Duolingo XP mines. I found little weird methods, simply so I might compete. I might rattle via classes shortly, earn a 15-minute double XP enhance, then maximize that point by rattling via the simple “story” classes for 80XP a pop.

If that seems like gobbledygook to you, congrats on being an actualized human being. I, in contrast, was getting my kicks from obliterating harmless males, ladies and kids on Duolingo leaderboards. I turned essentially the most poisonous scumbag alive. If Duolingo despatched me a message saying I might been knocked off my prime spot, I might return like an fool scorned and go nuclear on anybody who dared problem my Duolingo supremacy. I would not go away till your complete Sapphire league had been diminished to ash.  

Lifting the curse

However then, at some point, I simply stop. 

I had good motive. It was round Christmas. My Scottish household, who I hadn’t seen in over 4 years due to COVID, flew to Sydney, Australia, to go to me for the vacations. We had a lot deliberate, to the purpose the place I barely had time to test my cellphone. 

That was when Duolingo received just a little bit… bizarre.

Like a spurned lover, Duolingo started messaging me incessantly, through more and more aggressive notifications begging for my return. I watched in horror as a cell phone app went via the phases of grief in its try to get me again. Like a needy companion who calls you 10 minutes after a textual content, Duolingo started sending me emails once I did not reply to the notifications. It was a brutal onslaught that solely served to focus on how twisted my Duolingo obsession as soon as was.  

After primarily ghosting Duolingo for round three weeks, I received a hilariously darkish observe: “These reminders aren’t working. We’ll cease sending them for now.”

And, after all, the subsequent day Duolingo despatched me one other notification and an e mail.

I by no means returned. The curse has been lifted. The seduction methods Duolingo as soon as wielded to nice impact – the XP, the gems, the leagues – now not have a maintain on me. My streak is lifeless. I’m free. 


“Earn a further 5XP on each lesson till 8 p.m. How a lot are you able to earn?”

Video screenshot by CNET

For now, my days of being gaslit by a freaky, inexperienced, digital owl are blissfully over.

All that is left is the decaying tendrils of the strategies used to ensnare me, my interior monologue making an attempt to make sense of all of it. As somebody numb to the results of gamification, I am shocked it labored so successfully. If this was Name of Responsibility or FIFA, the infinite spiral of numbers pinging upward would have had little impact on me. However on Duolingo, an app designed to show me one thing tangentially associated to self enchancment, the lure was unimaginable to withstand. 

Did my Spanish get higher? Sure and no. 

I realized a number of phrases and polished up elements of my clumsy grammar. However I think that if my spouse had been to stroll out of her house workplace, proper this very second, and communicate to me in Spanish, I might freak out. I might soften right into a pile of clothes and dirt just like the Depraved Witch of the West.

However then, resuscitated, like a cursed, hunched Gollum, I might most likely fireplace up Duolingo, utterly on autopilot and discover myself sucked into the abyss over again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *