Duolingo Transformed Me Into a Monster

It is a story about quite a lot of issues. It is about Duolingo — that is apparent — that is within the headline. However it’s actually a narrative about doing the incorrect issues for the incorrect causes. 

It is also a narrative about how gamification can quickly remodel one factor into one other factor. And a narrative about how I’m a whole fool. That I do not know what I am speaking about — or doing — and that nobody ought to take heed to my recommendation about something ever.

However let’s begin with the Duolingo half.

On the finish of October, I made a decision to start out learning Spanish on Duolingo. That was determination as a result of studying a brand new language is enjoyable and rewarding. However it was additionally a horrible determination as a result of I would actually simply come again from visiting household in Chile — a Spanish-speaking nation — squandering one of many 4 or 5 instances in my whole life the place the power to talk Spanish would have been helpful. 

Duolingo language education app logo

Battle not with monsters, lest you develop into a monster your self.

Sarah Tew/CNET

However the reality was I needed to study Spanish as a result of, whereas visiting household — who had spent 10 months working in Chile — I would develop into impressed by how shortly they’d acclimated. In that point, my sister-in-law went from realizing near zero Spanish to dealing with each state of affairs utilizing a language she’d been studying on the fly. She bought her begin utilizing Duolingo. So I believed, hmmm, perhaps I might do this?

It was additionally a choice tied to a productiveness kick. Because of jetlag (from the aforementioned abroad journey) I would been waking up tremendous early, round 5 or 6 a.m. It was good! I used to be getting a lot of stuff carried out. Not essentially work stuff, however train stuff, life stuff. So I made a bit cope with myself: For the primary half-hour or so, as quickly as I wakened, I would dive into Duolingo.

Duolingo, an app designed to assist folks study any of 40 languages, is extraordinarily common. It was named Apple’s greatest app of 2013 and has nicely over 50 million customers. Duolingo, together with its patented inexperienced owl mascot, has penetrated common tradition to its core. Saturday Evening Stay even did a sketch on it again in 2019. 

A number of research communicate to its effectiveness as a studying device. One discovered Duolingo was equally as efficient as studying in a classroom. However not all research agree. Steven Sacco, a retired language professor, spent 300 hours studying Swedish on Duolingo however nonetheless managed to fail the ultimate examination of an introductory college course.  

None of this dissuaded me. At first I went laborious. I spent roughly an hour each morning, blasting via the early classes. It was extremely addictive. I had a baseline information of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I used to be breezing via with near 100% accuracy, a huge ego increase that got here with fuzzy emotions of feat.

These fuzzy emotions have been strengthened by all of the online game shit Duolingo continually fed me. Expertise factors and gems – no matter what they did or what they meant – I devoured them up like a deranged turkey. Duolingo was a machine designed to make me really feel superficially productive. Sure, grasp. Verily. Feed me that serotonin. Let me suck on the teat of this weird inexperienced owl. I shall develop into engorged with its hole, forbidden pleasures. I’ll drink it dry.

Diamond Canines


If you happen to gaze lengthy into the abyss, the abyss gazes again.


Perhaps probably the most weird factor about my Duolingo obsession: Whereas I used to be racking up the gems at 6 within the morning, I had a human spouse, sleeping in my bed room, who not solely used to show languages as her full-time job, however speaks Spanish. Fluently.

As an alternative of asking this full-grown, real-life lady who lives in my home to assist me study Spanish, I sat hunched over my telephone, with the posture of an anxious chimp, and purchased gems and expertise factors –  or XP – at a daunting price. 

Was it serving to me study Spanish? It is laborious to inform. Finally studying Spanish ceased to be the purpose. I bear in mind one among my associates, who I used to be seeing for the primary time since getting back from Chile, tried to talk Spanish to me. 

She, too, had been studying Spanish. I fully froze. This lady was not talking the language of Duolingo. She was talking the language of the actual world with precise phrases, and I used to be woefully unequipped to reply.

However it barely mattered. I used to be barely ashamed of my incompetence. By that point I would develop into a gaunt, hollowed-out XP addict solely sustained by endlessly accumulating pinball scores in Duolingo. Spanish was out. Profitable was all that mattered.

I used to be particularly entranced by Duolingo’s league system. 

Duolingo permits its customers to compete with each other in a collection of leagues, much like those you may discover in video video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You begin out in “Bronze.” However in case you collect sufficient XP, you may achieve promotion to larger and extra aggressive leagues. There are 10 in whole, all of which sound like they’re named after Pokemon video games: Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl and so forth and so forth.

The large papa high league is the Diamond league. That is the place the large boys play, however even attending to that time is difficult. These leagues are robust and a few members clearly have bugger all else to do however toil within the Duolingo XP mines. I found little weird strategies, simply so I might compete. I would rattle via classes shortly, earn a 15-minute double XP increase, then maximize that point by rattling via the straightforward “story” classes for 80XP a pop.

If that appears like gobbledigook to you, congrats on being an actualized human being. I, in contrast, was getting my kicks from obliterating harmless males, ladies and youngsters on Duolingo leaderboards. I turned probably the most poisonous scumbag alive. If Duolingo despatched me a message saying I would been knocked off my high spot, I would return like an fool scorned and go nuclear on anybody who dared problem my Duolingo supremacy. I would not depart till all the Sapphire league had been diminished to ash.  

Lifting the curse

However then, sooner or later… I simply stop. 

I had good purpose. It was round Christmas. My Scottish household, who I hadn’t seen in over 4 years due to COVID, flew to Sydney, Australia, to go to me for the vacations. We had a lot deliberate, to the purpose the place I barely had time to verify my telephone. 

That was when Duolingo bought a bit bit… bizarre.

Like a spurned lover, Duolingo started messaging me incessantly, by way of a collection of more and more aggressive notifications begging for my return. I watched in horror as a cell phone app went via the levels of grief in its try to get me again. Like a needy companion who calls you 10 minutes after a textual content, Duolingo started sending me emails after I did not reply to the notifications. It was a brutal onslaught that solely served to spotlight how twisted my Duolingo obsession as soon as was.  

After primarily ghosting Duolingo for round three weeks, I bought a hilariously darkish word: “These reminders aren’t working. We’ll cease sending them for now.”

And, after all, the following day Duolingo despatched me one other notification and an e-mail.

I by no means returned. The curse has been lifted. The seduction strategies Duolingo as soon as wielded to nice impact – the XP, the gems, the leagues – now not have a maintain on me. My streak is lifeless. I’m free. 


“Earn an extra 5XP on each lesson till 8 p.m. How a lot are you able to earn?”

Video screenshot by CNET

For now, my days of being gaslit by a freaky, inexperienced, digital owl are blissfully over.

All that is left: the decaying tendrils of the strategies used to ensnare me, my internal monologue making an attempt to make sense of all of it. As somebody numb to the consequences of gamification, I am shocked it labored so successfully. If this was Name of Obligation or FIFA, the infinite spiral of numbers pinging upward would have had little impact on me. However on Duolingo, an app designed to show me one thing tangentially associated to self enchancment, the lure was unimaginable to withstand. 

Lesson discovered. Or, on this case, lesson kind of discovered.

Did my Spanish get higher? Sure and no. 

I discovered just a few phrases and polished up elements of my clumsy grammar. However I think that if my spouse have been to stroll out of her residence workplace, proper this very second, and communicate to me in Spanish, I would freak out. I would disintegrate right into a pile of clothes and dirt just like the Depraved Witch of the West.

However then, resuscitated, like a cursed, hunched Gollum, I would most likely hearth up Duolingo, fully on autopilot and discover myself sucked into the abyss once more.

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