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Duolingo turned me into a monster

This is a story about many things. It’s about Duolingo — that’s obvious — that’s the title. But it is Actually a story about doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

It’s also a story about how gamification can quickly turn something into other thing. And a story about me being a complete idiot. That I didn’t know what I was talking about – or what I was doing – and that no one should listen to my advice about 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 rewarding. But it was also a bad decision because I actually just got back from a visit with family in Chile – a Spanish speaking country – having wasted one in four or five times in my life my ability to speak. Spanish should have. useful.

Duolingo language education app logo

Do not fight monsters, lest you become a monster yourself.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But the truth is I wanted to learn Spanish because, while visiting family — who worked for 10 months in Chile — I was inspired by their pace of adaptation. At that point, my sister-in-law went from knowing almost zero Spanish to handling every situation in a language she had learned quickly. She started using Duolingo. So I thought, hmmm, maybe I can do that?

It’s also a decision tied to a productivity push. Thanks to jetlag (from the aforementioned overseas trip) I woke up very early, around 5 or 6 am. Too good! I’ve done a lot of things. Not necessarily work, but exercise tools, life tools. So I made a bit of a deal for myself: For the first 30 minutes or so, right after I woke up, I would dive into Duolingo.

Duolingo, an app designed to help people learn any of the 40 languages, is extremely popular. It was named Apple’s best app of 2013 and has more than 50 million users. Duolingo, along with its patented blue owl mascot, has penetrated pop culture to its very core. Saturday Night Live even did a sketch of it in 2019.

Experiments speaks to its effectiveness as a learning tool. One person found Duolingo to be just as effective as learning in a classroom. But not all studies agree. Steven Sacco, a retired language professor, spent 300 hours studying Swedish on Duolingo but still failed his final college entrance exam.

None of this stopped me. At first I went hard. I spent about an hour every morning going through the first lessons. It is extremely addictive. I had a basic knowledge of Spanish (hello, guys!) So I finished excellently with almost 100% accuracy, a huge boost on what I come with a vague sense of achievement.

Those vague feelings were reinforced by all the video game crap Duolingo kept feeding me. Experience points and gems – whatever they did or mean – I devoured them like a deranged turkey. Duolingo is a machine designed to make me feel productive. Yes, owner. Indeed. Feed me that serotonin. Let me suck the nipple of this weird blue owl. I will become tense with its empty, forbidden pleasures. I will drink it up.

diamond dog


If you look long into the abyss, the abyss will look back.


Perhaps the strangest thing about my Duolingo obsession: While I was collecting gems at 6 a.m., I had a human, sleeping wife in my bedroom who didn’t just teach languages. like her full-time job., but speak spanish. Competently.

Instead of asking the grown-up, real-life woman I live with to help me learn Spanish, I sat hunched over the phone, like a nervous chimpanzee, and earned gems and points. experience – or XP – at a given time. scary rate.

Will it help me learn Spanish? It is very difficult to say. Finally, learning Spanish is no longer a problem. I remember a friend of mine, whom I met for the first time since returning from Chile, tried to speak Spanish with me.

She also learned Spanish. I completely froze. This woman does not speak the language of Duolingo. She was speaking the language of the real world in actual words, and I regretfully couldn’t afford to respond.

But it hardly matters. I’m hardly ashamed of my incompetence. By that point, I had become an emaciated, emaciated XP junkie sustained only by relentlessly accumulating pinball scores in Duolingo. Spanish is out. Winning is all that matters.

I am particularly fascinated by Duolingo’s tournament system.

Duolingo allows users to compete against each other in a series of tournaments, similar to the one you might find in video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You start with “Bronze”. But if you collect enough XP, you can be promoted to higher and more competitive leagues. There are 10 in total, all of them are like named after Pokemon games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, etc.

The big guy’s premier league is the Diamond tournament. That’s where the big boys play, but even getting to that point is a challenge. These tournaments are difficult and some of the participants clearly have all sorts of other things to do besides tossing around in the Duolingo XP mines. I discovered little weird techniques, just so I could compete. I flip through the lessons quickly, earn double XP in 15 minutes, then maximize that time by flipping through the easy “story” lessons to earn 80XP at a time.

If that sounds like gobbledigoook to you, congratulations on becoming a real person. On the contrary, I am interested in destroying innocent men, women and children on the Duolingo leaderboard. I have become the most toxic scum alive. If Duolingo sends me a message saying I’ve been knocked out of my top spot, I’ll turn around like a despised idiot and attack anyone who dares to challenge my Duolingo supremacy. I won’t leave until the entire Sapphire alliance turns to ashes.

Lift the curse

But then, one day… I quit my job.

I have good reason. It was around Christmas. My Scottish family, whom I haven’t seen in over four years thanks to COVID, flew to Sydney, Australia, to visit me for the holidays. We’ve been planning so much, that I barely have time to check my phone.

That’s when Duolingo gets a little… weird.

Like a rejected lover, Duolingo started texting me repeatedly, through a series of increasingly aggressive messages begging me to come back. I watched in horror as a mobile phone app went through stages of grief in an attempt to bring me back. Like a needy partner calling you 10 minutes after texting, Duolingo starts sending me email when I don’t respond to the notifications. It was a ferocious attack just to highlight how twisted my Duolingo obsession used to be.

Basically, after dimming Duolingo for about three weeks, I got a funny dark note: “These reminders don’t seem to be working. We’ll stop sending them.” Now.”

And, of course, the next day Duolingo sent me another notification and an email.

I never come back. The curse has been lifted. The seduction techniques Duolingo used to use to great effect – XP, gems, tournaments – no longer affect me. My record is dead. I am free.


“Earn extra 5XP per lesson until 8pm How much can you earn?”

Screenshot of CNET’s video

Now, the days when I was suffocated by a freaky, green, digital owl are happily over.

All that remains: the rotten veins of the methods used to trap me, my inner monologue trying to make sense of it all. As someone new to the effects of gamification, I was amazed how well it worked. If this were Call of Duty or FIFA, the endless spiral of ping-ups wouldn’t have affected me much. But on Duolingo, an app designed to teach me something almost related to self-improvement, the appeal is irresistible.

Lessons Learned. Or, in this case, kind of lessons learned.

Is my Spanish better? Yes and no.

I learned a few words and improved my awkward grammar aspects. But I suspect that if my wife walked out of her home office, right now, and spoke to me in Spanish, I would freak out. I will disintegrate into a pile of clothes and dust like the Wicked Witch of the West.

But then, resurrected, like a cursed premonition Gollum, I’ll probably fire up Duolingo, fully on autopilot, and find myself sucked into the abyss again.

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