The Benign Addiction: Duolingo

I’m taking Duolingo lessons for Portuguese, and the sentences I’ve had to translate make me laugh: After writing “butter is good” I speculate Paula Deen is heading Duollingo, but then I realized if that were true I would have translated racist words—yikes.

In the past week I shared Duolingo with my friend here on our Kenya study abroad program, and he is now taking French lessons after struggling to find websites or programs geared for teaching Afrikaans.

I’ve kept up with Duolingo since last summer after leaving Spanish class, but I’ve only recently come across some astounding research: According to professors at the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina, 34 hours of Duolingo equates to 130 hours of a first-year college semester course.

I’m cashing in. I must be saving thousands of dollars by practicing multiple languages through Duolingo. I keep a notebook handy and refuse to take motorbikes so that I can focus on translating sentences in my head during my walks to work—in this case, literally going the extra mile. Then I might take out my notebook during my long commutes to work and exercise unfamiliar vocab (for more on long commutes, see blog post “No, I am pretty sure I’m not Chinese“).

Duolingo’s options for languages are limited. I can’t practice Swahili, but then again I’m extraordinarily fortunate to practice in Kenya, though now I have two and a half weeks left. I’ll probably have to look into Rosetta Stone for Japanese, mostly to appease my Japanese mother, but when it comes to Romance Languages Duolingo’s got your back.

Okay, okay. Get this. Now it wants to me to translate “He cuts the cheese.”

Between ordering in Swahili at restaurants and practicing Portuguese whenever I can, I’m actually becoming addicted to learning languages. Lately I’ve been writing on a Apple Pages document in Spanish, filling up more than a page (single spaced) at a time. But, as I type this entry it’s 4:20 pm and my idea of post-work relief is through practicing Português. Duolingo is my biggest vice outside of sampling stouts, so I think I turned out alright.

Why would someone be addicted to Duolingo? For the same reason World of Warcraft is more addictive than crack cocaine. It’s because of its very essential mechanism of frequently rewarding you (in Warcraft’s case, constantly). I level up. I unlock new lessons. I expand my skill tree. When you’re on a streak you get “lingots,” these red rubies that serve as Duolingo’s currency that I use to refill my tries (“hearts”). They’ve got me like one of B.F. Skinner’s pigeons. Pressing that damn lever again and again.

But we’re smarter than mice and pigeons. Right now I’ll practice Swahili.

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9 thoughts on “The Benign Addiction: Duolingo

  1. I’m using Duolingo for Portuguese myself and enjoying it tremendously (and learning a ton). I wanted to give you the head’s up that Duo is in the process of adding more languages (check out the Duolingo Incubator to see what’s currently in progress and in beta). You might want to save your money regarding Rosetta Stone and wait for the Japanese course on Duo. They’re working on the English-from-Japanese now (English for Japanese speakers) which means they’ll do the reverse (Japanese for English speakers) at some point in the (not-too-distant) future.

    • Alex, you are a true gentleman and a scholar. Thanks for the head’s up. It won’t be until a few months from now anyway when I’ll be mentally prepared to tackle Japanese after switching alternating Spanish and Portuguese… and keeping up with my Swahili.

      What languages do you speak or practice? Do you find Duolingo’s computer voice for Portuguese too robotic? I find their Spanish program nearly flawless. I can’t quite nail the pronunciation of Portuguese, but it’s been around a full 48 hours since starting and I’ve quickly picked up the reading and writing.

      Obrigado, homem! Boa noite!

  2. I speak English and Spanish and I’m learning Portuguese. I did have trouble with Duo’s Portuguese voice at first, but I got used to it, and despite the roboticness, it actually seems to be quite effective. I was watching a Brazilian movie yesterday – Central do Brasil (Central Station) – and I was genuinely surprised by how much of the dialog I understood without the subtitles (although it was hard for me to understand the children). The Duo Spanish course is more polished than the Portuguese, but that’s to be expected since it’s been out of beta for much longer and has many more users to report problems and suggest alternative translations. Overall I’ve been extremely happy with it, and I’m eagerly waiting for the Portuguese for Spanish speakers course to enter beta (any day now!)

  3. Hi! So I think it’s really cool that you are learning new languages. Currently, I’m just starting up on my 5th language, Russian, and I really love to learn new languages. A few years ago, before I started studying French, I really wanted Rosetta Stone, but then I found other, cheaper and better ways to learn languages. It’s really quite doable to learn a language for little to no money, but if you are willing to invest several hundred dollars in language learning software, you should look at other more reasonably priced and more effective tools such as Assimil or Teach Yourself.

  4. Your 5th language? Wow! You sound like a pro, so I’m looking into these programs as I type.

    What’s the most rewarding part of learning another language, for you?

    • It’s hard to pick one thing that is the most rewarding for me. The whole process of learning a new language is rewarding because every time I learn something new, no matter how small, I feel accomplished, while also wanting to learn more. It’s all very motivating for me. However, for languages like Spanish, which I have been learning for 13 years, the most rewarding part isn’t really learning anything new (unless I realize I have forgotten something very basic!), it’s being able to communicate in another language. Also, I know that speaking to someone in their native language can really make their day, which always puts me in a good mood.

  5. I agree. Lately I’ve been thinking learning and applying a foreign language is one of the most empowering things anyone can do.

    What part of the States are you from? Unfortunate for me, I live in Michigan where I find less opportunities to speak in Spanish than, say, San Diego where my brother works.

    Similar to what you said, the most rewarding experience I’ve had in East Africa was speaking in coherent Swahili with villagers nearby the farm where I volunteered. They spoke no English, but I was able to tell them what I liked in rural Tanzania over urban Nairobi. Like you said, they were delighted when I started conversing with them in Swahili—their faces lit up!

  6. Ah, no kidding. I go to a liberal arts school called Kalamazoo College where study abroad has been so well integrated into the curricula that it’s a given. The college has smoothed out all the logistics from scheduling the flights to tuition to credit transfers.

    It’s amazing. I’m actually saving money by being on study abroad. The smaller tuition costs that stack up, namely room and board, would have cost me a few more thousand. After a quick Google search I’ve found that 87% of the class of 2011 went on study abroad.

    I ended up at K College for their generous financial aid, and was initially ambivalent because I wanted to be further from home (Kalamazoo to my house in Grand Rapids is an hour’s drive, tops). But it’s been preparing me well for the future. From the internships to leadership positions they hook you up with, I wouldn’t ever want to be anywhere else—especially since I’d have piles of debt.

    If you deal with winter, it would be an excellent school to look into!

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