That owl is haunting my dreams.
This is a story about a lot of things. It's about Duolingo. That's obvious – that's in the headline. But it's really a story about doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
It's also a story about how gamification can rapidly transform one thing into another thing. And a story about how I am a complete idiot. That I have no idea what I'm talking about – or doing – and that no one should listen to my advice about anything ever.
But let's start with the Duolingo part.
At the end of October, I decided to start studying Spanish on Duolingo. That was a good decision because learning a new language is fun and rewarding. But it was also a terrible decision because I'd literally just come back from visiting family in Chile – a Spanish-speaking country – squandering one of the four or five times in my entire life where the ability to speak Spanish would have been useful.
But the truth was I wanted to learn Spanish because, while visiting family – who had spent 10 months working in Chile – I'd become inspired by how quickly they'd acclimated. In that time, my sister-in-law went from knowing close to zero Spanish to handling every situation using a language she'd been learning on the fly. She got her start using Duolingo. So I thought, hmmm, maybe I could do that?
It was also a decision tied to a productivity kick. Thanks to jetlag (from the aforementioned overseas trip) I'd been waking up super early, around 5 or 6 a.m. It was good! I was getting lots of stuff done. Not necessarily work stuff, but exercise stuff, life stuff. So I made a little deal with myself: For the first 30 minutes or so, as soon as I woke up, I'd dive into Duolingo.
Duolingo, an app designed to help people learn any of 40 languages, is extremely popular. It was named Apple's best app of 2013 and has well over 50 million users. Duolingo, along with its patented green owl mascot, has penetrated popular culture to its core. Saturday Night Live even did a sketch on it back in 2019.
Multiple studies speak to its effectiveness as a learning tool. One found Duolingo was equally as effective as learning in a classroom. But not all studies agree. Steven Sacco, a retired language professor, spent 300 hours learning Swedish on Duolingo but still managed to fail the final exam of an introductory university course.
None of this dissuaded me. In the beginning I went hard. I spent roughly an hour every morning, blasting through the early lessons. It was incredibly addictive. I had a baseline knowledge of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I was breezing through with close to 100% accuracy, a gigantic ego boost that came with fuzzy feelings of achievement.
Those fuzzy feelings were reinforced by all the video game shit Duolingo constantly fed me. Experience points and gems – regardless of what they did or what they meant – I gobbled them up like a deranged turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me feel superficially productive. Yes, master. Verily. Feed me that serotonin. Let me suck at the teat of this bizarre green owl. I shall become engorged with its hollow, forbidden pleasures. I will drink it dry.
Maybe the most bizarre thing about my Duolingo obsession: While I was racking up the gems at 6 in the morning, I had a human wife, sleeping in my bedroom, who not only used to teach languages as her full-time job, but speaks Spanish. Fluently.
Instead of asking this full-grown, real-life woman who lives in my house to help me learn Spanish, I sat hunched over my phone, with the posture of an anxious chimp, and acquired gems and experience points – or XP – at a frightening rate.
Was it helping me learn Spanish? It's hard to tell. Eventually learning Spanish ceased to be the point. I remember one of my friends, who I was seeing for the first time since returning from Chile, tried to speak Spanish to me.
She, too, had been learning Spanish. I completely froze. This woman was not speaking the language of Duolingo. She was speaking the language of the real world with actual words, and I was woefully unequipped to respond.
I don’t know how to order a coffee but I sure can tell you where bookshelf is♬ Taste It - Ikson
But it barely mattered. I was barely ashamed of my incompetence. By that time I'd become a gaunt, hollowed-out XP addict solely sustained by endlessly accumulating pinball scores in Duolingo. Spanish was out. Winning was all that mattered.
I was especially entranced by Duolingo's league system.
Duolingo allows its users to compete with one another in a series of leagues, similar to the ones you might find in video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You start out in "Bronze." But if you gather enough XP, you can gain promotion to higher and more competitive leagues. There are 10 in total, all of which sound like they're named after Pokemon games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl and so on and so forth.
The big papa top league is the Diamond league. That's where the big boys play, but even getting to that point is challenging. These leagues are tough and some participants clearly have bugger all else to do but toil in the Duolingo XP mines. I discovered little bizarre techniques, just so I could compete. I'd rattle through lessons quickly, earn a 15-minute double XP boost, then maximize that time by rattling through the easy "story" lessons for 80XP a pop.
If that sounds like gobbledygook to you, congrats on being an actualized human being. I, by contrast, was getting my kicks from obliterating innocent men, women and children on Duolingo leaderboards. I became the most toxic scumbag alive. If Duolingo sent me a message saying I'd been knocked off my top spot, I'd return like an idiot scorned and go nuclear on anyone who dared challenge my Duolingo supremacy. I wouldn't leave until the entire Sapphire league had been reduced to ash.
But then, one day… I just quit.
I had good reason. It was around Christmas. My Scottish family, who I hadn't seen in over four years thanks to COVID, flew to Sydney, Australia, to visit me for the holidays. We had so much planned, to the point where I barely had time to check my phone.
That was when Duolingo got a little bit… weird.
Like a spurned lover, Duolingo began messaging me incessantly, via a series of increasingly aggressive notifications begging for my return. I watched in horror as a mobile phone app went through the stages of grief in its attempt to get me back. Like a needy partner who calls you 10 minutes after a text, Duolingo began sending me emails when I didn't respond to the notifications. It was a brutal onslaught that only served to highlight how twisted my Duolingo obsession once was.
After essentially ghosting Duolingo for around three weeks, I got a hilariously dark note: "These reminders don't seem to be working. We'll stop sending them for now."
And, of course, the next day Duolingo sent me another notification and an email.
I never returned. The curse has been lifted. The seduction techniques Duolingo once wielded to great effect – the XP, the gems, the leagues – no longer have a hold on me. My streak is dead. I am free.
For now, my days of being gaslit by a freaky, green, digital owl are blissfully over.
All that's left: the decaying tendrils of the methods used to ensnare me, my inner monologue trying to make sense of it all. As someone numb to the effects of gamification, I'm surprised it worked so effectively. If this was Call of Duty or FIFA, the endless spiral of numbers pinging upward would have had little effect on me. But on Duolingo, an app designed to teach me something tangentially related to self improvement, the lure was impossible to resist.
Lesson learned. Or, in this case, lesson sort of learned.
Did my Spanish get better? Yes and no.
I learned a few words and polished up aspects of my clumsy grammar. But I suspect that if my wife were to walk out of her home office, right this very second, and speak to me in Spanish, I'd freak out. I'd disintegrate into a pile of clothing and dust like the Wicked Witch of the West.
But then, resuscitated, like a cursed, hunched Gollum, I'd probably fire up Duolingo, completely on autopilot and find myself sucked into the abyss all over again.
Originally published Jan. 17, 2023.