I have written, often with fondness, about the gamified language learning app Duolingo. I have been using the service since around 2015, when it was introduced to me by a student, and in the last few years I have worked steadily to collect all of the badges (or ‘achievements’, if you’re of the Xbox generation) that Duolingo can offer. All but one, that is. The most difficult for me to achieve involved maintaining a streak (an unbroken series of daily visits to the site) of one whole year. And then the pandemic happened, and I decided it was time to tick this last box, and see what I might learn along the way.

Over the course of the last year I used Duolingo at least once a day. Sometimes that might only have been for a few minutes, just long enough to complete a lesson or a review exercise, and to maintain my unbroken streak. But on other occasions I might spend a few hours blitzing through lessons, securing my streak but also improving my standing in the Duolingo league table. If gamification means addiction to a service, then Duolingo is definitely a standout example of the gamification of language learning. By feeding that apparent addiction, I was able to finish the year in the top 1% of all Duolingo users, amassing a total of over sixty hours of language learning on this one platform alone.

But what did all of this studying teach me? What lessons, if any, have I learnt about language learning by spending 365 days in a row with Duolingo?

1. Motivation is a variable

As teachers, we often think of some students as being highly motivated, and others as lacking motivation. Though we certainly try to affect our students’ energy levels through warmers and rewarding activities, we do have a tendency to see our students through the lens of their overall motivation to learn. Perhaps, my year with Duolingo has taught me, we should be wary of such sweeping generalisations.

In the months leading up to the summer, I invested a huge amount of time in the study of Greek because in June I knew I’d be visiting the country. My motivation could not have been greater. But even then, it was not a constant, it was a variable. When I had a long day of teaching ahead of me, I’d do one review activity first thing in the morning to keep my streak going, and then I’d forget about Duolingo – and Greek – for the rest of the day. Sure, I was a motivated learner in general, but not right then. I can imagine that if I’d been studying Greek as part of a course, I might have neglected to do my homework if I’d had a day like that: my priority would have lain elsewhere.

Later in the year, I switched to Polish (I live in Poland, so the focus is entirely natural). But I found it difficult to get into the language. It’s a very tricky one to learn, and I became increasingly frustrated with myself for making the same mistakes over and over. After a week like that I noticed that my motivation was bottoming out, and I switched to Spanish: a fun language, you might say. I never dealt with the consequences of my declining motivation with Polish but instead opted out of studying it entirely. My own students, who have signed contracts with the school that run for at least one semester, would have no such luxury with their English studies.

Sometimes I was highly motivated; other times I had almost no motivation. We must remember to treat our students’ motivation as a variable, not a constant.

2. Progress is slow

Not all of the courses on Duolingo are the same size. The Latin course, for instance, is only a couple of units long. In total, you learn twenty-two skills in the Duolingo Latin course, and when you’ve finished, you might have reached a relatively comfortable A1 level. When I studied Latin with Duolingo (to get the course completion badge), I could see where I was going, and gauge how long it would take for me to get there.

The Spanish course is a different beast entirely. It is composed of nine units, and I’m currently on the fifth skill of 32 for unit three. At the rate I’m going, it’ll be 2023 before I’m finished Spanish, and I don’t think that means January 2023 either.

Could I go any faster? Not really. At the moment, I’m able to maintain a steady pace through the material but I have outside interests to balance – work being the first of these. The language I’m learning right now is not terribly advanced, and I’m still several units away from hitting A2 level. It takes a long time for me to remember that ‘el negocio’ is ‘the business’ and not ‘the negotiation’, and that we say ‘me gusta el chocolate’ but ‘me gustan los chocolates’. That’s nothing compared to Polish, certainly, but I can’t afford to go any quicker through the content without risking losing my way.

Sometimes I find myself planning a lesson for my A2 adult students, and I want to get through two pages of content in only ninety minutes. I pause and consider how long it would take me to really absorb the same amount of material in Duolingo, and my conclusion is generally that ninety minutes would not be long enough. Not if I wanted to do it properly, and to make sure that I remembered it going into the following week. But I don’t teach these students once a week – we meet twice, with only a day’s break between sessions. Is such swift progress at lower levels really achievable? In The Owl Factor, André Hedlund (2022) stresses the importance of letting your brain rest, and how vital it is to sleep at least once before you attempt your homework. By trying to cover so much in the three hours I had with my students, was I overloading their brains? Progress is slow for me on Duolingo, so am I forcing my students to go faster than even I could manage?

3. Accuracy is a challenge

Duolingo will fail you for your mistakes, but it’s just a piece of software and it’s impossible to think that the cartoon characters that introduce each question are actually being critical of you and your incessant failures. Failure is fertile ground on which to grow your skills, as Duolingo won’t let you pass the lesson until you’ve corrected all of your mistakes. This means that the areas of language that I struggle with the most are also those areas that I practise the most.

I’m also a long way from being conversationally fluent in any of the languages I’ve studied, bar Polish, but when I speak Polish in the real world I make so many mistakes that I often cause my wife embarrassment. For instance, it has taken me twelve years to learn that the polite diminutive of the name Krzysztof is actually Krzysiek, not Krzys as I’d thought. The latter form is actually more like a baby name, and now I cannot make eye contact with the forty-year-old accountant I teach who I’ve spent the last three semesters calling Krzys.

My problem here has to do with accuracy. I need a strong foundation of language to build upon, one that is not composed of half-guesses and suppositions about the language. If I don’t know how to say something, it’s good that I try my best to say it but if it’s wrong, I need to know and I need immediate correction.

This would be far less true if I was at B1 level or higher. My year with Duolingo, where I could not move on until I had mastered each little bit of vocabulary or grammar, has made me reconsider how I teach lower level students. In fact, I wonder a little if I should even be teaching students at A1 level. Does it help them or hinder them for me to work on their fluency when almost none of their utterances are accurate? And what does it mean to their delicate L2 egos when I, a fellow human, correct those mistakes? I’m beginning to think that this is a job better left to an owl.

4. The renaissance of the Grammar-Translation method?

And that leads me on to the next lesson: what is the best way to learn a language? Whole books have been written on this issue, but teachers are notorious for not reading them, and besides, none of the research I have seen comes to a firm conclusion. There are popular histories of the different methodologies employed in the industry, among which Scott Thornbury is famous with his conference talks, available on YouTube (see Thornbury, 2019). One approach that seemingly fell to the wayside in the popular literature is the Grammar-Translation method, but thanks to my year with Duolingo I’m beginning to re-evaluate its position in my teaching arsenal.

The system Duolingo uses is very simple. It presents a sentence, either in English or in your target language, and you have to provide the equivalent. That’s a massive oversimplification of what Duolingo does, of course, but at the core of the service sits the traditional translation approach.

The weaknesses of this approach are easy to see, and it would be a rare thing for a language school to persist in its use. But I have found it a worthwhile method. I have gained enormously by following the approach that Duolingo has adopted – not that I can think of many other ways that the service could work given its reliance on code rather than human teachers. My Spanish is good enough now to allow me to watch, for example, 7 Años on Netflix and to the message without being entirely reliant on the subtitles. Thanks to collecting several thousand points on the French Duolingo course, the same is also true with the films of Éric Rohmer that I’ve seen lately, and it’s been fun to compare the subtitled songs in Jacques Demy’s The Young Ladies of Rochefort against the original lyrics.

I would never use this translation method with my higher level students, and nor with my younger learners. But I think that it might still serve a purpose with my lower level adult students, and believing this has increased my motivation to study Polish. On Duolingo, that is.

5. Consistency is key

This is a point beyond all doubt, but as teachers it serves to be reminded of the importance of consistent, sustained effort over time.

I mentioned that I completed the Latin course; that was back in around March of 2021. I revisited it before writing this article, and struggled to complete even the simplest review activity. Just as my muscles have atrophied for want of the gym, my ability with Latin has declined massively. That’s because my approach to Latin has been inconsistent (or, more accurately, non-existent). But what about the other languages that I have studied?

I feel more positive about my Spanish abilities right now than ever before in my life. If I met a Spanish speaker on the street, I think I could communicate with them – not perfectly, but with enough confidence to manage the interaction. At times in the last few months though that hasn’t always been the case. For days at a stretch I would go on Duolingo just to get my daily points and keep the streak running. I felt my Spanish slipping away. But when I was able to string together a good couple of days on Duolingo, I felt my confidence soar, and presumably my abilities soared too. We can think of this as like achieving match fitness in sport. Consistency has a compounding effect. By studying regularly every day, we become stronger but conversely, by failing to put in sufficient time, even for just a few days, we can lose much more than we realise, especially when we are relatively new to a language and have yet to internalise the fundamentals. That inconsistency has a similar impact to when a player returns to the pitch after a long absence through injury. They are a shadow of their former selves, initially at least, and must be given time to recover their match fitness and their form.

We knew this already, but it serves to be reminded. It is not rare for my students to miss a lesson or two, but that might mean seven days entirely lacking in contact with English. What would the same mean for my Spanish? I must only consider the state of my Latin on Duolingo to know. When a student has been missing, they must be brought back into the fold slowly and delicately, for fear of risking further damage to their confidence. And imagine what dreadful impact the summer break has on our less advanced learners, as our school year finishes in June and doesn’t resume until October. Fortunately, though, help is at hand to get them more comfortably through such breaks: Duolingo.

References

Hedlund A (2022) The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy. Independently published.

Thornbury S (2019) What’s the Best Teaching Method? (Video). Available at: https://youtu.be/nue8AN9XsuY


Christopher Walker is a teacher and writer based in Bielsko-Biala in the south of Poland. He has been a teacher for fifteen years, and yet still finds new things to explore every day.
Email: closelyobserved@gmail.com