On Friday, October 30, 2020, I used DuoLingo for the 300th day in a row. Since I started using it as part of my effort to read French comics, I haven’t missed a day.
Part of that is just that it’s so easy to use. I can pull out my phone at any time and spend two to five minutes playing a round.
Part of it is that DuoLingo won’t let you forget — I approved the alerts from DuoLingo that remind me that my streak’s in danger if I haven’t used the app all day by 10:30 or 11:00 p.m.
And, of course, a big part of it is the way DuoLingo gamifies the process and encourages you to keep coming back day after day. My 300 day streak, itself, is a sign that gamification works.
The Games DuoLingo Plays
Here’s the most insidious game of them all: Leagues.
DuoLingo has levels called “leagues” that users play through in each language. At most, 50 users are put into each grouping for the leagues. (At high levels, the groups shrink to make it harder.) How many leagues are there? There are 10 leagues all together (in order: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, Pearl, Obsidian, then Diamond). If you finish in the top 10 in the gruop at your level, you move on to the next. If you fall to the bottom 5, you drop back a league.
Depending on what random assortment of people you wind up with, you might find yourself in a cut throat competition to stay alive. The Top 10 is particularly difficult to achieve as you climb up the ranks.
I’m in the last league, the Diamond League. I don’t want to drop back, because it is SO hard to finish in the top 10 of the previous league. Everyone at that point wants to get to Diamond. The scoring gets intense. The people who are either (A) using bots somehow or (B) have way too much free time during the day make moving up difficult.
It took me a few weeks to get to Diamond, and that included a couple of marathon sessions. It wasn’t pretty, but it had to happen.
Yes, I have an ego. My ego demanded Diamond.
The Down Side of Gamification
Sometimes, it promotes the wrong things.
It’s the first rule of any system: Make the rules, and the players will bend the system to their will. They’ll find workarounds. For example: Google says backlinks count. So SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts create a huge array of websites on their own specifically for the purposes of linking to their own other blogs in order to increase the backlinks. Google eventually figures this out, changes the rules, and SEOs move on to the next workaround. Cat and mouse. Over and over.
(Famously, a pudding company offered points towards flights, so one guy bought pallets of pudding and cashed in enough points to pay $100 for a plane ticket to Europe, 30 times over. No system is foolproof.)
With DuoLingo, the gamification keeps you coming back habitually. If you’re the type of person — like me — who hates to “break the chain,” then you’ll show up every day. I’ll admit, some days are more productive than others. In these 300 days, a few have been two rounds played at 11:30 p.m. to keep the chain alive. Other days have been an hour or more of concentrated play. It all balances out.
But the habit is engrained. That’s the important thing. Creating the habit is always the hardest part.
That’s a big part of learning. How many New Year’s Resolutions fade away after a month, or less? They don’t become a habit. They don’t have the instant gratification we crave as humans to keep us going. DuoLingo provides that, and that’s what keeps people coming back.
Once that problem is solved, the next is to keep yourself in at a higher level . To be honest, I’m not even sure why you want to be on a higher level. I don’t know if it matters at all, or if it unlocks new modes of play, or what. I know that I did drop down one week and was not very pleased with myself. I had a slow week, finished 48th, and it took me two or three weeks to graduate back up.
So there’s a consistent nagging feeling all week that You Must Earn Lots of Points every day. That’s good, right? Now, it’s not just a matter of showing up every day, but also a matter of putting points on the easily-accessed scoreboard daily.
I want to stay clear of position #46, thanks.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
To that end, sometimes, I replay the earlier, easier lessons. They’re easy points.
But I’m not learning anything new. I’m replaying old lessons for the sake of the game and not the learning. Also, you don’t lose hearts for wrong answers on replays, so there’s no risk. It’s just a time play. For many of those lower levels, I can breeze through them in a minute or two for ten quick and easy points.
Taking newer lessons will get you a couple extra points per round, but you’ll have to concentrate more. You have to be more deliberate so you don’t lose all your hearts. It’s newer material, so it’s not engrained in you.
In other words, my progress through the language has slowed down a bunch. I’m not ripping through new levels like I did at the start. I need to concentrate more, learn more, and worry less about the games…
But it’s hard. I want to play the game!
See? The system works!
I just need to remember the end goal: Fluent reading of French language comics. That always gets me back on track. There’s a giddy response I have whenever I learn a new word or phrase that I know I’ve seen in the past in “Spirou” magazine — and now I’ll understand it when I see it again!
Also, I don’t really want to do the lesson anymore about mice and grass and animals. Those topics bore me. That’s why it’s taking forever to finish that one…
Is It Working?
Yes! I can read more French than I could before I started Duolingo. I’m familiar with many of the common words and phrases and sentence structures. I can tease a sentence apart better than ever.
As always, the problem is two fold:
First, I need more vocabulary. I can often read around a sentence. I can understand all the small words in a sentence, but the verb that’s new to me or the noun is often unknown. That’s always going to be an issue, I know, but I need to have more words ready to go in my brain.
Second, verb tenses are still an issue. 95% of DuoLingo so far has been in the present tense. It’s dipped a toe into the waters of “going to do” something and “would do” something here and there, but it’s nothing concentrated yet. I know that part is coming, and I know that’s also where learning a foreign language got super confusing for me back in school. I’m both excited and scared…
Things That Are Still Difficult
Where I trip the most often and lose the most hearts during these lessons is in the tiniest details.
Thankfully, DuoLingo doesn’t penalize you for not typing in the accents on specific characters. Also, I set my phone keyboard to the French keyboard, which often will autocorrect those issues for me.
Like any native English/American speaker, remembering masculine versus feminine nouns is a test of my patience and memory. There’s zero rhyme or reason to those, though occasionally I find little ways to fool myself into thinking some words have a system.
For example: Arms are masculine (le bras), so picture a weight lifter flexing his muscular, manly arm. Legs are feminine (la jambe); picture a woman in a skirt. Use whatever tricks you need. Occasionally, rote memorization kicks in.
There are a ton of other little things that get easier with practice, but still trip me up sometimes. When I’m rushing, I confuse “es” and “est”, which DuoLingo notes is a common mistake. There are specific cases for using “des” versus “les”, and “en” versus “a”. (I think there’s supposed to be an accent grave on that “a” there, come to think of it….)
More commonly, I leave out or add too many extra little words in along the way. Which phrases need an “a” or a “de”? When is it the right time to include “des” or “aux” or even “les.” There are lots of little edge cases to take into account and, again, I think the only thing that will fix those mistakes is repetition and practice.
Getting More Difficult
One other thought along those lines:
DuoLingo recently added a new degree of difficulty. When you go back to retake one of those earlier, completed lessons, they’re usually worth 10 points. Now, there’s an option on many of those levels to play a harder version for 20 points.
And THAT is how I now justify it to myself: Sure, I’m replaying old lessons, but they’re not super easy anymore. Often, they take just as long as a new lesson. They’re subtly including vocabulary and techniques from other lessons. It’s more sentences and fewer phrases. Sentences get longer and more complicated.
I feel smarter doing the 20 point lessons over the 10 point lessons. Time-wise, it’s probably a wash. It takes twice as long to do the harder lessons. However, I feel smarter for taking on that little bit extra of a challenge.
Putting It to the Test
The entire point of this was to learn enough French to be able to read French comics. I don’t care about my pronunciation, which is a good thing because I can’t even fake a French accent without sounding funny. The best ways I remember French vocabulary words are to wildly mispronounce them in my head to remember their spellings.
This might come back to bite me someday, but I’m also hoping that I’m soaking this stuff up by osmosis and, in a pinch, I wouldn’t sound like a total idiot trying to say something out loud in French.
In any case, I went to the French home page of Izneo.com and pulled up the new Lucky Luke book. It’s being released in English next month, but I was curious to read a little more than just the preview sample pages I’ve seen passed around on Franco-Belgian BD websites.
I learned that my lack of vocabulary is still my biggest issue. That’s something that will only come with time and experience. I almost can’t help that at this point.
But between those words that I need to look up, there’s a LOT of French that I could read pretty easily. I saw a lot of common phrases that I’ve drilled on numerous times with DuoLingo. “I want to…” and “I can…” and “I think that…” come to mind. And, of course, verbs like to be, to go, and to have are always the most common in any language. I saw those a bunch in the book.
In the end, I was able to stumble through a few pages and pick up on what’s going on a lot better than I had expected to. Maybe Lucky Luke is just written at an easier level? I don’t know, and I don’t want to complain. . I was just thrilled to understand as much as I did. It makes it a lot less annoying to have to turn to Google Translate for a word when it’s happening with far less frequency. And doing that teaches me new words, as well. It’s a great circle.
Maybe that should be 366, though. 2020 is a leap year, after all.
In truth, 1000 is a better aim. I’m not going to be reading “Spirou” fluently after 366 or even 500 days. Even after 1000, it’ll be tricky. But I want to get there.
And, yes, I’m still doing many of the things I mentioned in my original article. I don’t watch any French television shows at the moment, but I do watch one or two YouTube channels, and I follow a lot of Franco-Belgian creators and commentators on Instagram and Twitter. I dip into a couple of French language podcasts occasionally, as well. (DuoLingo has their own now!) The tweets are getting easier to read already, too.
I can see some great progress since I started this streak at the beginning of the year, and that feels good. It’s also enough to prompt me to keep going, because the more I learn, and the more I think I can figure it out. It might be a never-ending chase, but I want to keep pursuing it, at least until the day where I can review something from its original French. =)