Screenshot of DuoLingo on my 600th day

600 Days of DuoLingo: Lessons Learned in Learning French

Two weeks ago, I crossed the 600 day streak in using DuoLingo to teach myself French. I’m here to do a check-in once again with how much I’ve learned, how I’m using DuoLingo, and what’s surprised me since the last update.

Also, I have a new goal with my French learning. It’s something I should have seen coming, but was hoping to avoid. Stay tuned…

Previously in Pipeline:

https://www.pipelinecomics.com/how-to-learn-french-to-read-comic-books-bd/
https://www.pipelinecomics.com/300-days-of-learning-french-with-duolingo/

Gamification

This turns out to be a bit of a repeat from what I said in the last update, but I promise to keep it short:

I’ve fallen prey to DuoLingo’s silly gamification. It’s turned the app into as much of a game as it is a learning tool. I’m recognizing that and learning how to use that to my advantage. I admit that sometimes it feels like I’m too far on the “game” side and not far enough on the “learning” side of the see-saw. Knowing the problem is half the problem. I’m trying to rebalance that a bit these days.

The one saving grace of gamification is that I never take a day off. I always show up. Isn’t that half the battle?

I’m still in the Diamond League, but the competition there has been getting more fierce lately. I’ve had to put up some high scores to finish in the Top 20 or Top 25 and not get knocked back down a level.

I’m not even sure anymore why I care about being in the Diamond League. There’s probably some functionality that’s only available at this level, but I can’t remember what that is.

How To Get The Most Points, Fast

Because I’m only human, I’ve found ways to get the maximum points with the least effort.

Is that helping me learn French? Not entirely. I don’t need to repeat the earliest lessons on a nearly daily basis just for the easy points. I need to plow forward and learn new words, phrases, and idioms. That’s slowed down a bit because I’m holding back to get the most points.

duolingo screenshot showing a purple level and the mastery option

Whenever you finish a level of a given challenge (and each has 6, generally speaking), you get 15 minutes with double points. I try to only finish a level when I know I’ll have time to play through during those double points. I can race my way through the earlier challenges, where I can pick up an easy 40 points per round. You can only play each of those easy lessons once a day for the 40 points. After that, it drops down to 20 points. It’s enough, though. I can rack up 200 – 300 points easily in those 15 minutes.

Since I started to write this blog post, there’s a new addition to this: You have the option of paying 100 credits (that you win small amounts of after every completed game) to get a full hour of double points. I haven’t used that yet, but I imagine that would come in handy if I ever thought I was in trouble of not staying in the Diamond League. I could see myself using that up on a Saturday night before the close of the competition week on Sunday.

For a brief time a few months back, DuoLingo put up a clock on the main screen that showed you how much time was left with double points. They dropped it after a week or so. I miss it. I want it back! It’s helpful.

Are those 15 minutes well spent? Not necessarily. I mean, I’ve become an expert in the differences between “enchanté” and “bienvenue,” but is that really as useful as moving ahead and getting to lessons on the future tense, for example?

What I’ve tried to do in order to turn this around is to use those precious 15 minutes to replay harder levels, not just the first 5 – 10. It’s slower going. Those lessons are trickier. They have a greater vocabulary, and they have longer and more complicated sentences to finish. That takes precious time.

But, at the end of the week, I can still stay in the Diamond League without those extra rounds of “Greetings” or “People 1”.

It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

I also finished first in the Diamond League a few weeks back. That was awesome, but generally meaningless. Also, the random group DuoLingo put me into that week was a relatively low scoring one, which made it possible.

The people I’m playing against in the last three or four weeks, though, have been absolute French-learning machines. I’m having a hard time keeping up with them. That’s led to some marathon playing times over the weekends to make sure I’m safe for the Sunday night deadline. I bet they’re paid subscribers and have other ways to earn lots of points that I just don’t know about.

The Trap of the Free Trial

Every now and then, DuoLingo offers up a three day free trial of their paid subscription program. It would be foolish to skip it. It’s free, after all, and it gives you a lot of great features — so great, in fact, that you can pay to get them.

I should pay. I use the app on a daily basis. I’ve learned a lot. Paying for it would be a nice gesture, but also a big help in learning even more.

I believe the subscription is $6.99/month, with a slight discount if you buy the annual plan. It’s tough to tell, because DuoLingo does not want to give you that information on their website. They do everything they can to deflect and to get you on the free trial before the subscription automatically renews for you, I’d guess.

They have a page on their website titled “How much does DuoLingo cost?” that only directs you to a free trial without any pricing information. It’s the Frequently Asked Question that they refuse to answer.

I do remember that there was a sale on the annual subscription around the new year. Maybe I’ll sign up if they repeat it this year.

End of rant.

When you’re on the paid program, you don’t have the five heart limit. You can make more than five mistakes and still push on.

I make dumb mistakes all the time. I read too fast and type an answer in third person when it’s actually a first person sentence.

I make typos that DuoLingo doesn’t sympathize with. It’s a pretty good system about detecting typos and letting them go, but sometimes I’m moving too fast and fat finger typo one character too many. (To be fair, I’ve gotten away with one or two mistakes in the past because DuoLingo read them as typos. Those are few and far between, though.)

Or, even better, sometimes spellcheck gets in the way. It helps more often than not. I keep my keyboard on French mode and the autocorrect works that way, too. Occasionally, though, it translates my typing into something unrecognizable.

rBeing able to learn from those mistakes and apply them right away would be a huge learning help. Right now, if I mess up to many of them, I need to go replay some older lessons to build up new hearts, or wait hours for the free hearts DuoLingo doles out throughout the day.

There are other helpful parts of the plan, such as access to different timed tests and quizzes, but the unlimited heart factor is the biggest one. And once I’ve had it for three days, I get timid going back to play with the hearts.

I’m afraid to make errors again. I look at everything three or four times to make sure I got it right. Occasionally, I’ll even go to the Google Translate app to look up an article to see if I got my le/la right before submitting my answer. My hearts are just that precious…

I suppose you could say that the act of looking it up is an additional help to learning, but it’s just annoying enough that I’d prefer not to have to do it.

Expanding Past DuoLingo

In the past, I’ve mentioned podcasts and YouTube channels and television shows on Netflix I can use to get used to hearing more French.

Lately, it’s all been YouTube for me. I’ve found some great channels that offer helpful lessons that I can squeeze in anytime. Some also have nice vlogs exploring different parts of France or different aspects of French life. It’s good to get that context with a new language, I think.

(By the way, if there are any Belgian vloggers out there, please drop a link in the comments below. I’d love to see more of Belgium, also, whether in Dutch or English. English subtitles are preferable, but I’ll take what I can get.)

Even if I don’t discover new things here, it’s a great backup for DuoLingo. Some videos re-enforce what I’ve already learned. Some teach the same thing in a different way, which always helps me as a learner. If nothing else, just absorbing the sounds of the language is a help. It’s as close to “immersion” as I’m going to come.

Here are some recent subscriptions for me:

Piece of French YouTube header image

Piece of French” believes in total immersion. Her videos are entirely in French and include a lot of vlog material and interviews. The point of the channel is to teach French, but she’s not going word by word. She explains phrases as they come up here and there, but she’s not treating you as anything other than an equal. You need to keep up. Don’t worry, though, because you can get English closed captioning on the video.

It’s through an interview on her channel that I found “Expatlang.” He focuses, as you might guess, on teaching languages to expats. It’s a relatively new channel so there aren’t many videos there yet, but what’s there has been good. The videos lean more towards how to learn a language rather than specific words and grammar.

StoryLearning YouTube header

I also recently picked up Olly Richards’ “StoryLearning” channel. He speak a ridiculous number of languages. His channel is about learning languages, as well. There’s not a lot of French-specific content, but I have picked up a few theoretical things from him.

(Ironically, he’d tell me to delete DuoLingo.)

YouTube recommended a video of his, and I was surprised when he held up a book he had written [yes, that’s an affiliate link] filled with French short stories that I had seen on Amazon before and come very close to buying. Maybe watching his videos will push me into finally ordering a copy!

French Mornings with Elisa YouTube channel header image

My favorite new find, though, is “French Mornings with Elisa.” She makes useful three minute videos that cover a single expression/verb/grammar tip. The entire video is in French with English subtitles.

They’re short enough that I can follow them, and she speaks just not-fast-enough that there are videos I can understand big chunks of without reading along.

The thing about her videos that sometimes throws me, though, is when she’s giving the English translation of a sentence and uses a British accent. Her English pronunciation is great, but the British tinge to it surprises me. It makes sense, though — she might have learned English through a British connection that’s closer than an American one.

She also has a few vlogs of her adventures in Provence, France, which are fun to watch. It’s like looking into a whole ‘nother world where everything is en français.

"Learn French With Alexa" YouTube channel header for "Learning French With Alexa"

Learn French with Alexa” has a great mix of videos covering everything from vocabulary used in recent French television shows to how to speak in everyday French. She also produces a lot of #shorts videos, so you can get some lessons in under a minute, too.

One last one that I include here because it’s the craziest: “Learn French with FrenchPod101.com” is the enticement to get you to sign up for their training sessions, website, etc. That’s fine, because they put out an awful lot of videos along the way covering all sorts of French vocabulary.

The big one is the series that teachers you the 800 most common words in French, 20 words at a time. With each new video, they teach you 20 words and then tack on all the previous videos afterwards. The most recent video gets them up to 440 words — the video is 3 hours and 11 minutes long. The presenter does everything she can to not show any emotion, either. She’s a complete robot, in the best possible way…

The Surprising Thing

I want to speak French now, too.q

I should have known this would happen. When I started this project, I expressly said I was going this to learn how to read French comics in their native tongue. For the books that won’t be translated, I’ll have to go to them. Narrowing down my learning scope to that level would help me focus and give me a more achievable goal.

Why can’t I keep things simple?

French is tricky to pronounce, too. There are some subtle sounds that don’t come out of an American mouth very easily.

I’m not pushing this too hard. I’m mostly just saying things out loud on DuoLingo as I type or read them. I will listen to the audio clips on the app more frequently to see what I pick up on. And, of course, I’m listening to more French than ever through YouTube.

This is a recent discovery, so I’m still in just the immersion of listening to the language part of it. It’s not even that immersive. I just pay closer attention to what I hear now, and I try to listen to more of it.

That said, I’m not listening to any French podcasts at the moment. I try to fill my podcast time with things that don’t require my total and complete attention. Learning a language pushes it just too far.

The Spirou Journal Test

Cover to a recent issue of Spirou Journal magazine

I hadn’t looked at an issue of Spirou Journal in the past few weeks. While writing this up, I made sure I did. It’s my marker for how my learning is progressing.

There’s no metric attached to this. It’s pure gut feeling.

I can say, though, that I’ve learned a lot of things in the last 300 days, including a couple of verb tenses. I saw those in the comics I read in Spirou. I recognized a lot more vocabulary.

Honestly, when I hit the lesson in DuoLingo that explained what “J’en” meant, I think I cheered out loud. It’s something I’ve seen a lot, but never knew what it meant. Now that I do, I can read right through it. It showed up on the first page of Spirou I flipped through.

Also, that kind of reenforcement — where you learn something and then see it out in the wild shortly thereafter — does a world of good in cementing knowledge. Learning is one thing, but using is another and even more important thing.

That’s why it’s even more frustrating that it only takes one or two words in a word balloon to make the entire panel meaningless to me. There’s more vocabulary yet to be learned.

(I keep seeing the number 3000 being floated around. Most languages have 3000 words that are so frequently used that they’ll cover better than 90% of all conversations. I’m still in the low hundreds, I’m sure.)

The Next 300 Days

I should have goals for the next 300 days, but I don’t. Yes, I want to stay in the Diamond League, but I don’t know why. Yes, I want to learn more. I want to get to more verb tenses, because those are the things that have always thrown me off learning languages.

But I can’t say that I have a firm checklist to get so far in so many days. I’m just going to keep the chain going. Don’t break the streak. Practice, practice, practice.

Hopefully, reading French comics will continue to become more and more possible. I hope so, because I just picked up a couple more French books off eBay recently and it would be a shame not to review them someday…

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

3 Comments

  1. Moi, j’ai lu les histoires de Alix, de Jacques Martin, pour m’aider apprendre les essentiels. Ben, j’admets que le mot “épée” est le seul que je peux y attribuer. Je connais Duolingo mais après quelques tentatives avec l’allemand j’ai jeté l’éponge. Je trouve que il donne trop l’impression qu’il existe une rélation directe entre le vocabulaire d’une langue et une autre. “The apple is tasty” est une bonne traduction de “La pomme est bonne” – mais ce n’en est pas selon Duolingo, par exemple. Je te conseille le cours audio de Michel Thomas pour la grammaire et la bande dessinée pour le reste. Il faut comprendre que la bande dessinée n’est pas “le comics” pourtant. Quelqu’un a dû m’expliquer que tous ces histoires de super-héros exigent un mot pour distinguer la tradition américaine, car ce n’est pas la bande dessinée de vrai. Et voilà, je me demande si tu dois passer tout ça par Deepl pour comprendre ?

    1. Heh, the really scary this is the I understood the vast majority of that paragraph. I only started to falter in the last couple of sentences. That’s when I went to Google Translate for just those sentences. =). These Michel Thomas tapes seem to be very popular. Someone always is recommending them, both here and on Reddit. I guess I need to take them seriously at some point… Thanks for the reading practice. Je suis desolee que je ne repond pas en francais. La prochaine fois, peut être.

  2. I think you’re on the right path.
    My experience of learning English, first in school, then by myself, was very much similar, it was the written word first, we are both readers so our brain works that way, acquiring more and more vocabulary as I was bumping into typical american lingo expressions in comics and other pop culture outlets, like “Pizzazz” or “chutzpah” or “polka-dot” or “clobbering”. That was before the internet so you could not find the definition of any of this in the Harrap’s, but over time, with context, I could figure out the general meaning and how to use them in a sentence. As for the spoken word, it’s only when I moved to London for work that it really hit me, and it only took a few months for my ear to get used to accents, turns of phrases and inflections, and connect the dots to the written side of things (then I went to work in Ireland, then Scotland, that’s a whole ‘nother story :p ). As I settled down in the UK, the daily newspapers were a big help in crystallizing stuff I was hearing on the Telly or on the radio, names of places and people and how to pronounce them properly. Basic coffee machine fodder. To do something similar, you might want for example to install the France Info app, read the headlines every day and listen to a 15 mn news flash once a day. This will help for the music of the language to sink in. Once written and spoken flow together, that’s when you’ll really feel comfortable.
    Spirou, being for young audiences, is not necessarily good enough to have a conversation with a grown-up, as I found out that the way Spider-man talked under Stan Lee was in no way representative of the way normal adults interact. But that’s a start. Once you have the vocabulary and grammar basics, diversification of sources is key, getting out of your comfort zone one step at a time. Seems to me that the gamification aspect has its own trappings, keeping you sheltered from taking it to the next level. Have you tried french songs ? Should be easy to find some online with the french text and/or english translation as subtitles. French movies would work too.
    But in any case, cramming more hours of it does not make the process go necessarily faster, as your brain needs time to digest the information and synapses to form connections. This is notably harder the older you get so, have patience, little grasshopper.