Duolingo Turned Me Right into a Monster

This can be a story about quite a lot of issues. 

It is a story about Duolingo. Clearly. That is within the headline. Nevertheless it’s actually a narrative about doing issues for all of the unsuitable causes. 

It is also a narrative about how shortly gamification can remodel one factor into one other factor. And it is most actually a narrative about how I’m an entire 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 finding out Spanish on Duolingo. That was an excellent resolution as a result of studying a brand new language is enjoyable and rewarding. Nevertheless it was additionally a horrible resolution as a result of I might actually simply come again from visiting household in Chile — a Spanish-speaking nation — squandering one of many 4 or 5 occasions in my total life the place the flexibility to talk Spanish would have truly been helpful. 

Duolingo language education app logo

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

Sarah Tew/

However the reality was I needed to be taught Spanish as a result of, whereas visiting household — who had spent 10 months working in Chile — I might change into impressed/jealous of how shortly they’d acclimated. In that point, my sister-in-law went from realizing near zero Spanish to dealing with each scenario utilizing a language she’d been studying on the fly. She bought her begin utilizing Duolingo. So I assumed, hmmm, perhaps I may try this?

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

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

A number of research communicate to its effectiveness as a studying instrument. One discovered Duolingo was equally as efficient as studying in a classroom. However not all research communicate to its effectiveness. 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 exhausting. I might spend roughly an hour each morning, blasting by way of the early classes. It was extremely addictive. I had a baseline data of Spanish (hola, amigos!) so I used to be breezing by way of 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 consistently 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 change into engorged with its hole, forbidden pleasures. I’ll bleed it dry.

Diamond Canine


When you gaze lengthy into the abyss, the abyss gazes again.


Possibly 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, but additionally speaks Spanish. Fluently.

As an alternative of asking this full-grown, real-life lady who lives in my home to assist me be taught 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 fee. 

Was it serving to me be taught Spanish? It is exhausting to inform. Ultimately studying Spanish ceased to be the purpose. I bear in mind one in every of my pals, 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 true world with precise phrases, and I used to be woefully unequipped to reply.


I don’t know how you can order a espresso however I positive can inform you the place bookshelf is

♬ Style It – Ikson

Nevertheless it barely mattered. I used to be barely ashamed of my incompetence. By that point I might change 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 sequence of leagues, much like those you may discover in video video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You begin out in “Bronze.” However when you collect sufficient XP, you possibly can achieve promotion to increased 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 massive boys play, however even attending to that time is difficult. These leagues are powerful and a few individuals clearly have bugger all else to do however toil within the Duolingo XP mines. I found little weird strategies, simply so I may compete. I might rattle by way of classes shortly, earn a 15-minute double XP increase, then maximize that point by rattling by way of the straightforward “story” classes for 80XP a pop.

If that appears like gobbledigook to you, congrats on being an actualized human being. I, against this, 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 might been knocked off my high spot, I might return like an fool scorned and go nuclear on anybody who dared problem my Duolingo supremacy. I would not go away till the complete Sapphire league had been lowered to ash.  

Lifting the curse

However then, at some point… 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 slightly bit… bizarre.

Like a spurned lover, Duolingo started messaging me incessantly, through a sequence of more and more aggressive notifications begging for my return. I watched in horror as a cell phone app went by way of the levels of grief in its try and get me again. Like a needy associate 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 basically 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, in fact, 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 a further 5XP on each lesson till 8 p.m. How a lot are you able to earn?”

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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 interior 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 countless 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 unattainable to withstand. 

Lesson realized. Or, on this case, lesson type of realized.

Did my Spanish get higher? Sure and no. 

I realized a couple of phrases and polished up facets of my clumsy grammar. However I think that if my spouse have been to stroll out of her house workplace, proper this very second, and communicate to me in Spanish, I might freak out. I might disintegrate right into a pile of clothes and smoke just like the Depraved Witch of the West.

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

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