Quitting Duolingo after 1611-day Streak, and What I’m Using Now

Language learning for monoglogts and what's hAPPening with apps. Duolingo, Busuu, Roseta and other resources
French celebration

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For 7 years I have spent most mornings staring at my phone, using a variety of Apps (I started with Duolingo) and resources to learn French. This morning was no different, until… my adorable wife Mags, the love of my life, my partner in crime, the polyglot, and creator of MappyEverAfter, stood there with a glass of freshly squeezed bright pink cactus pear juice in her hand and said… I actually didn’t hear what she said because… have you ever seen cactus pear juice? The color is insane.

Prickly Pear fruit juice
Prickly Pear fruit juice

“What?” I said. “Weren’t you listening to me?” said she. Skipping the lecture on my not listening, she asked me to write to you about learning languages. Me, the language-learning equivalent of the “village idiot”, to write about learning a language? To which I replied, as you could imagine, with a reasonable level of shock, “You speak multiple languages, and I still struggle with English (my native tongue by the way), are you crazy?” Note: Before you embark upon learning a language, learn not to call anybody “crazy”, especially when they are holding a glass of cactus pear juice.

After I changed my clothes, Mags explained her intent. If I could learn even the simplest parts of a language, doing anything I am doing, then anybody can.

“I’d hoped the language might come on its own, the way it comes to babies, but people don’t talk to foreigners the way they talk to babies. They don’t hypnotize you with bright objects and repeat the same words over and over, handing out little treats when you finally say “potty” or “wawa.”

David Sedaris

There are so many ways to learn a language these days and so many languages to learn! You name it, from Welsh to Navajo, Vietnamese to Swahili, or even Klingon to High Valyrian. My relationship with languages has been a very traditional (for an American) and relatively tragic one. I was rejected by my Junior High School Spanish teacher for being so bad at Spanish that I was not allowed to go on to the High School Spanish classes, and ended up taking Latin instead because nobody else would have me. Three years of Latin later, I barely skated by (thank you, Mr. Balak, for your compassion), and my chances of a chat with the Pope were completely dashed.

I don’t consider myself particularly stupid, it just seems that all of those foreign tongues were Greek to me (and that class wouldn’t have me either). So, about seven years ago, I got it in my head that I could learn French. I love the country and its capital (if you’ve not been, I highly recommend it), its culture, its people (more on all of this in my, or Mags’, or my and Mags’ upcoming article on Paris), and of course its language. It seemed like the perfect choice, learning what I love. The motivation is already built in.

The Best Way to Learn a Language

For some languages, resources are still sparse. For instance, should you have married a lovely Slovak lass (like me) and want to speak to her family (like me), you’ll realize that as far as finding Slovak resources goes, you would have been better off marrying a Klingon (not like me). or else moving there (I mean Slovakia, not Qo’noS).

However, learning French opens the door to a vast number of learning options, maybe too many for a bear of little brain and frequent confusion, like myself. Mags says that the best way to learn a language is to move to the country that speaks it (see, told you), then fall in love with a local (uh oh), who preferably does not speak your language because that will require a lot more commitment. To the language I mean. Unfortunately, I mean, fortunately being happily married to the aforementioned Slovak puts a damper on that option (sorry Audrey Tautou).

This left me with books to read, audio programs to listen to, educational videos to watch, meet-ups to go to, classes to attend, movies to view, music to listen to, Apps to use, and so much more (or “et bien plus” as the French would say, or at least I think they would 🙂

I have explored many of these, including spending a good amount of time in the country (meaning France, in my case). But then I repetitively find myself in boulangeries staring at the kind lady behind the counter trying to think of the word for that delicious long stick of bread thingy they have up there, the one that just came out of the oven and smells so good… What are they called!? A baguette! Damn, that’s what we call them at home.

Or, I’m at my dear (French) friend’s wedding and I realize I can’t even manage a simple “Bonjour” to his lovely parents; I get that nervous. And, rubbing salt into my inadequacy, I have to witness my non-French-speaking wife somehow conjure French sentences out of thin air, confidently ordering baguettes, chuckling with the boulangère, and bonding with Eric’s family, all in my dream language.

Social interactions make me feel like I’ve been lobotomized. This social anxiety has led me to seek out the more intimate options for learning, which may not be the best but are immensely helpful. Thus, I have devoted a great deal of my time to searching for and using the best language learning apps, as a popular and simple option for me and most people. I will focus primarily on those in this story. Though, in my summary, I will include all of my favorite solitary ways of learning, as they are not only good for the shy recluse but in times of lockdown or pandemic or simple frugality, a wonderful way to travel without leaving home.

The Ifs, Ands, and Apps: Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise

As far as apps go, I have tried Babbel, Memrise, Duolingo, and several others, including some stand-out ones that I will mention later. However, since I found most of these to be very similar if not identical, I went with Duolingo, for seven long years. I have used it pretty consistently and, at the time of writing, completed a 1611-day streak, so I believe my opinion to be a relatively well-founded one.

Duolingo 1611 day streek

Why Duolingo? Well, it is one of the most popular language Apps available, offering 40 languages, and having over one hundred million downloads at “Google Play” and 4.5 stars out of 5. But did I reach day 1612 of that streak? No, and I will explain why.

Let me start with Duolingo’s attributes. Of course, there is the cute owl mascot (creatively named “Duo”). It is a nice app to look at, filled with charming animations that include recurring characters that you come to know and adore. It is relatively easy to navigate and offers lessons, reviews, and stories to learn from. Duolingo has a free free version with ads, which I choose to use since they are not obstructive to the lessons. Duolingo does offer the ad-free “Duolingo Super” for USD 6.99 per month (that’s USD 83.88 per year) after a two-week free trial.

The “Super” version mainly offers unlimited “hearts” as opposed to the five-a-day allotted on the free version. You lose “hearts” for mistakes and Duolingo will stop your lessons for a while when they are depleted. If you build up points as I have, you can use them, or actual money to buy new hearts. Another perk is having no ads (the free version consists of one ad at the end of each lesson). So far, so standard. Incredibly standard. The basic structure of Duolingo is pretty much the same as many of the other-language learning apps, so if you’re going to get one, pick one you like the style of, because there is not much else different.

How Wise is the Duolingo Owl?

I learned a little with Duolingo. It seemed to help support what I learned elsewhere, more than as a stand-alone learning tool. The dialogues with other learners seemed to be contained to the moment you were in the lesson. I would see school classes conversing over a topic while they were all online simultaneously, but if I posted a question, I never saw an answer, not once. Not unless I wanted to go back through the whole lesson again and again.

There is, however, an app that I have used for about 3 years now, that I consider the exception to the rule. I see many of Duolingo’s competitors, and Duolingo itself, trying to emulate this newer kid on the block. I will get to them in a minute (unless you skip ahead, then I will get to them immediately).

So, what is the downside to Duolingo? My biggest issue is that they (and again, they are not alone in this) consistently try to manipulate me by creating an endless array of awards, prizes, and achievements that mean absolutely nothing and have nothing to do with language learning. The vocabulary is often mundane and not particularly applicable to everyday life. Instead of focusing on truly useful language and cultural skills,

Duolingo has me more concerned about trophies that I can receive for the time I spend on their site than on improving my skills in any way. All I can clearly say (and not in French) is “Yay, I’ve achieved a medallion that means nothing to anybody except my fragile and needy little ego.” I would prefer Duolingo to focus their energy on making the actual learning process a pleasure and inspiring me to want to come back for something more than a dopamine hit.

The Killer of Intrinsic Motivation

As a teen, I had been a prolific, albeit slow, reader and always had a book in my hand purely for the joy of reading it. My father, who could read a book a day and found my slow pace to be a disappointment, offered me $5 for each book I read in the coming month. So, I pounded book after book that month and pocketed an impressive amount of moolah. But after that, I rarely picked up a book again, and it took me decades to rediscover that joy.

This form of achievement is prevalent in our society and is spreading across the world but at what cost? A planet of achievers who have lost the pleasure of the journey and the point of their destination. So, after seven years and a 1611-day streak, I am uninstalling my Duolingo, and carrying on with some other avenues and apps I’ve discovered. In the end, I stopped learning and was only seeking the high that clicking on their adorable little owl gave me.

Learning Tools that I Found Helpful and Pleasurable

  • “Michel Thomas” audio courses. Sadly this one is not available in as many languages as I would hope, and of those few, not all by the master himself. There is no writing or drills to memorize, you simply listen and learn, and they give you an incredibly strong core that can apply to all other learning. I learned more from his teaching than anything else. Tim Ferris offers an excellent breakdown of this process in this video. You can also watch this BBC Documentary on Michel Thomas.
  • Rosetta Stone is truly an excellent resource. I resisted it for a long time due to its hefty price tag, but then I discovered both the online program and the app completely FREE through my local library. I found them very helpful, particularly in improving listening, speaking, and writing.
  • As for that app I have found the most enjoyable and valuable for learning and understanding (see, I didn’t forget), it’s “Busuu” (currently offering 14 languages). They opt for words and phrases that apply to life as we know it. It is by far the most realistic use of language I have found in an app so far.

Busuu also explains the nuances of culture and the way things are said beyond sentence structure. Including “false friends”, words that are so similar to your language that you would think you could comfortably use them, yet their meanings can be embarrassingly different.

You may also freely communicate with native speakers, who are frequently kind and generous with their time, which you may repay by checking their attempts at learning your native tongue – spawning more conversations in French than I have ever had in France. Busuu also has excellent grammar and vocabulary review sections.

My only complaint is, that although they use beautiful photographs, once in a while they will be a little more obscure than I would like, i.e.: The photo for plombier (plumber) is two men and a woman cheerfully standing around. Though perhaps that is accurate for what you find your plumber doing in France.

Some other wonderful resources at your disposal

  • FLASHCARDS: Old school 3×5 cards or the myriad of apps in which you may make your own or use ones made by others (I use ReWord on my phone)
  • FILMS: Pick one you love and watch it again and again. If possible, get one that has subtitles in your target language, so you may see the words as they are being said. If the subtitles don’t match the speech (which frequently happens), simply see it as another tier in the learning process.
  • BOOKS or MAGAZINES: Take your time. Take one page and a notebook and try to grasp the meaning. You will find so many nuances of natural speech in these.
  • TELEVISION and RADIO: There are all kinds of apps and online programs and many are designed with the learner in mind.

The Big Question: Do I Now Speak French?

I would love to say yes… Actually, I would love to say anything to you in French and show off, but to be honest, I would say – not really. But, I’m not being fair to myself. My understanding has greatly improved, especially thanks to Michel Thomas, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu. I can look at most things written in French and understand them pretty well. Listening and speaking articulately is still a challenge but that is more due to social awkwardness.

If you don’t use it, it can not evolve and grow into a natural habit. The best thing is that, despite some frustrating moments, I still love the language. Using the best of these resources I am able to learn. And if I can learn, so can you, and probably much better.

In the end, the best way to learn will always be to live or spend as much time as you can in a place where your target language is spoken and even better to find someone romantically or otherwise that you desperately want to communicate with (please do not blame me when explaining to your significant other why you spent all night at a café talking to the gorgeous barista).

And whatever you do, don’t be shy, unapologetically use your language. Use it, use it, use it. One note of warning: Should you, like me, live with a polyglot and a former high school language teacher, be prepared to be consistently corrected in a language she hasn’t even studied.

Abordez toutes choses avec le cœur et vous n’échouerez jamais.

Mark (aka Mags’ hubby)

Resources for Learning French

PS: If your love is also… “Yes, Mags, you are my only love. I was simply referring to languages.” …If, like me, you are also very fond of, in a completely platonic way, the French language, here are some specific French favorites:

  • TV5 Monde ( https://apprendre.tv5monde.com/fr ) the French television network offers this wonderful app and online program that takes their broadcasts on varied topics and uses them to help you learn French.
  • “French in Action” with Pierre Capretz, using his proven language-immersion method https://www.learner.org/series/french-in-action/, is a series of fifty-two 30-minute online classes for beginners that are only in French and have you learning in the way children do, by simply being there. They are very pleasurable, well done, and charmingly quirky.
  • My favorite French film is “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain” better known as “Amélie” in the US. My biggest frustration with this, and most French films, is finding them with French subtitles. So I bought the “Amélie” screenplay as well.
  • I enjoy a lot of French music, but I find the former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni’s music to be sung softly and clearly, and in a way I can follow and enjoy learning.
  • My favorite books for learning French are:

“Le Petit Prince” (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Le Tao de Winnie” (The Tao of Pooh) by Benjamin Hoff, and

“Le Chat au Chapeau” (The Cat in the Hat) by Dr. Seuss.

J’espère que vous aussi évoluerez, apprendrez et apprécierez

How Tim Ferriss learns languages

BBC – Michel Thomas – The Language Master

1 thought on “Quitting Duolingo after 1611-day Streak, and What I’m Using Now”

  1. Thank you – a great article. I have been trying to learn Polish for about two years and am considering ‘dropping’ Duolingo as I am not speaking enough. My biggest language challenge is having the confidence to speak, even to my Polish colleagues. I spend so much time devoted to Duolingo, but not to developing speaking habits.
    I use other techniques too – but I think the time devoted to gaining Duo’s XP could be devoted to something more useful – but the thought of dropping that 795 day streak weighs heavy …

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