Streak of 300 Days of DuoLingo learning French

300 Days of Learning French with DuoLingo

Streak of 300 Days of DuoLingo learning French

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.

Lucky Luke comes from the West, not the North
“And for your information, I don’t come from the North, I come from the West!” (I admit that I had to look up the word in the first balloon.)

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.

What’s Next?

365 days!

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. =)

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

11 Comments

  1. Actually this month on November 19th, 2020 in 12 days “A Cowboy In High Cotton” comes out in English. Plus, what do you think Lucky Luke’s next adventure in French will be which will come out in 2022? Possibly meeting Wild Bill Hickok because there hasn’t been an album about Lucky Luke meeting Wild Bill Hickok before. Or even the 1st Kentucky Derby in 1875 possibly?

    1. Did you know that next year in 2021 is Lucky Luke’s 75th birthday? Will Lucky Comics, Dargaud Publishing, or Cinebook have any big celebrations for it next year at all you think?

  2. Has it been 300 days already ?
    in any case it’s impressive that you managed to stick to it and still find motivation in the current context. It’s hard for me to get anything done that is not immediately cost-effective…
    Does this app give you some perspective for practical applications, like when you are able to have a conversation in French at some point ? This sounds mostly driven towards the written word, how about spoken? You’ll need it when you come to Angoulême 😉
    Let me reassure you, getting the gender of the nouns right and deriving adjectives accordingly is tough for everyone, even for some brits I know that have been living here for decades, still have a hard time with it, heck even some french people do…
    As for grammar, you will notice that in most recent books, present tense has replaced past tense and preterit almost everywhere these days, to the point I’m not sure they actually still teach it in school any more than just an afterthought. You’ll only encounter past tenses in older books, anything written before 1980 essentially. Famously that enraged me when I discovered a few years back that for younger generations, Hachette rewrote the Famous Five series of books to completely replace past tense with present and also remove all the “big” words. That means the general decline in education standards is your friend :-p
    As for expanding your vocabulary, comics are not necessarily the best source for that, real books would be, but given your objective I guess that will do. I can remember as I was learning english as a teen, it was possible to find some books with parallel text, french one one page, english on the facing side. Some youth magazines as well. Not sure they still exist. They were popular at some point in the late 70, I think some Tintin or Asterix or Lucky Luke were published that way. That saves a lot of time in dictionary search.
    In any case, good to see you’re carrying on the torch; activity on the blog had been slow lately, podcast and all, so it’s reassuring to see you’re still around. The whole world feels like slo-mo these days so I guess you’re not alone. Take care, you and your family stay safe.
    I’m still digging through my books archives at the moment, in preparation for a potential move, so you might expect another surprise package by by Christmas. Get the tongs ready 😀

    1. When I first started DuoLingo, they had some exercises where you had to speak French out loud and it would mark you correct or not based on how close you got to the pronunciation. It was garbage. It never worked consistently. It’s not there anymore. I guess their machine learning never could get it right.

      They have some exercises which are conversations, and I’m getting to the point now where there are exercises where you listen to four or five sentences in a row in French and then have to answer a question based on what you just heard. They don’t put a transcript on the screen for you at all. You have to keep up. It’s tricky, but I can usually follow enough of it to pull it off.

      Otherwise, no, there’s nothing terribly conversational about this. There is a lot of listening involved, but I’d likely never pull off a conversation out loud without sounding silly — even if I had the words all written down in front of me!

      I’ve heard a few things about modern French conversation. It seems that “on” is more popular than “nous,” and that “ne/pas” is now just “pas” at the end. Those are the first two things that come to mind. I’ve seen some videos on YouTube about true conversational French and how things change from the formal lessons of language learning. It’s interesting, but I try not to get caught up on it yet. I hadn’t heard about the tenses thing. That’s crazy. I’m happy, though: Verb tenses are what always got to me in school. I couldn’t keep them all apart in my mind.

      Comics with French on the left and English on the right sound like heaven to me, though! =)

      1. In many languages, french for sure but english as well, the disconnect between written and spoken may sometimes feel like learning two different languages, I discovered it when I moved to London after reading so many american comics. I thought it would be a piece of cake and boy was I in for a shock 😀 And I’m not even talking about accents, when I was dropped in Scotland!! Watching TV with closed caption helped a lot.

        Today, no one under 60 would use “Déguerpissez” in a conversation here and if you ask anyone under 30 I’m not even sure they could tell you what it means…SAD! (sorry, bad case of backlash after following a week or so of american election late night coverage…). Seems to me the spoken french is evolving faster than I can follow, some hip words or turns of phrases from 5 years ago are for losers now, or so I’m told by my 15-year old nephew…

        I’ll see if I can locate some of those old bilingual books or mags, just for the sake of finding out if my memory doesn’t fail me 🙂 I hit 55 just a few weeks ago and I’m trying to keep my spirits up 😉 and prevent my joints from falling apart lol

    2. Oh, and yes, the slow down: It’s painful and annoying and I hate it, but the good news is that nothing is necessarily wrong. It’s been two or three things piled on top of each other that have slowed things down.

      The biggest thing is just school starting back up, but nobody leaving me alone in the house during the day. I restarted the podcast only because I’d have a couple of lunch hours during the week when I’d be home alone and could record the shows. I lost that time slot and still haven’t come up with a reliable replacement for it. Once I do, I’ll start up “Season Two” of the podcast. =)

      In other news: We did some work inside the house in August, which disrupted life for a month. (Kitchen work, mostly.) And we got a new dog last month! That’s completely obliterated any last remaining shred of time or energy I once had. New puppies are just as bad as new babies, though at least the dog sleeps through the night.

      I also have a big work project I’m spending extra hours at night and on the weekend with. It’s exciting and I enjoy programming, so I’m having fun with it, but that cuts into the time again. Eventually, I’ll burn out from it and retreat to comics and get things back on schedule around here.

      And thanks — I’ll get the tongs warmed up and the masks ready for any strange European boxes that come through. I was just looking through a couple magazines the other day, testing my French skills (not great) and thinking about how I’d talk about them in a podcast or an article on the website. I decided I wanted to do a video, but that’s another load of time-consuming work.

      I’m my own worst enemy. 😉

      1. Fair enough. I know how hard it can be to find enough time in the day to do the things that are important for you, especially when the rest of the family is not necessarily on board 😉

  3. As a practical application of what you have learned so far, you might enjoy this ;

    I just watched it, this Brit is spot on and very funny.

    As I’ve recently been thinking about moving to Spain, I am being recommended a method called Michel Thomas. Have you heard about it ? if so, I’d like to hear your opinion.

    1. Thanks for the link to that video. I’m only about ten minutes into it, but I’m loving it. I’m also enjoying the translations in the captions at the bottom of the screen. It looks like his entire YouTube channel might be worth watching. There’s a lot of videos in there about learning French, or learning English if you’re French. Subscribing now!

      I’ve heard of the Michel Thomas system. It was heavily recommended on a Reddit forum I looked into at one point for learning French. I didn’t do anything with it because I was being cheap and the total package is around $300. Maybe if I complete DuoLingo, I’ll splurge and treat myself. From what I’ve seen of it and read about it, it sounds like a great system. If you do try it for Spanish, let me know what you think.

  4. Will do. Though my girlfriend speaks spanish already so I might try osmosis through liplocking first 😀