How Duolingo Made Me Right into a Monster

It is a story about a number of issues. It is about Duolingo, clearly. That is within the headline. But it surely’s truly a narrative about doing the fallacious issues for the fallacious causes. 

But it surely’s additionally a narrative about how rapidly gamification can rework one factor into one other factor. And it is most actually 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. But it surely was additionally a horrible determination 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 complete life the place the power 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 wished to study Spanish as a result of, whereas visiting household — who had spent 10 months working in Chile — I might change into impressed/jealous of how rapidly 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 received her begin utilizing Duolingo. So I assumed, hmmm, possibly I might try this?

It was additionally a call tied to a productiveness kick. Due to 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 numerous stuff executed. Not essentially work stuff, however train stuff, life stuff. So I made a bit of 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 individuals study any of 40 languages, is extraordinarily well-liked. 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 well-liked tradition to its core. Saturday Night time Stay even did a sketch on it again in 2019. 

A number of research converse to its effectiveness as a studying instrument. One discovered Duolingo was equally as efficient as studying in a classroom. However not all research agreed. 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 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 big ego enhance that got here with fuzzy emotions of feat.

These fuzzy emotions have been bolstered 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 wolfed 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


In the event you gaze lengthy into the abyss, the abyss gazes again.


Perhaps essentially 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 cellphone, with the posture of an anxious chimp, and purchased gems and expertise factors –  or XP – at a daunting charge. 

Was it serving to me study Spanish? It is laborious to inform. Finally studying Spanish ceased to be the purpose. I keep in mind one in every of my buddies, 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 the way to order a espresso however I positive can inform you the place bookshelf is

♬ Style It – Ikson

But it surely 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. Successful 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, just like those you would possibly discover in video video games like Overwatch or DOTA. You begin out in “Bronze.” However should you collect sufficient XP, you may 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 robust and a few individuals clearly have bugger all else to do however toil within the Duolingo XP mines. I found little weird methods, simply so I might compete. I might rattle by way of classes rapidly, earn a 15-minute double XP enhance, then maximize that point by rattling by way of the straightforward “story” classes for 80XP a pop.

If that seems like gobbledigook to you, congrats on being an actualized human being. I, in contrast, was getting my kicks from obliterating harmless males, girls and kids on Duolingo leaderboards. I turned essentially 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 depart till all the Sapphire league had been diminished to ash.  

Lifting the curse

However then, sooner or later… I simply give up. 

I had good cause. 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 examine my cellphone. 

That was when Duolingo received a bit of 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 focus on how twisted my Duolingo obsession as soon as was.  

After primarily ghosting Duolingo for round three weeks, I received a hilariously darkish be aware: “These reminders are not working. We’ll cease sending them for now.”

And, in fact, the following day Duolingo despatched me one other notification and an electronic mail.

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


“Earn an extra 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 inside monologue attempting to make sense of all of it. As somebody numb to the results 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 unimaginable to withstand. 

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

Did my Spanish get higher? Sure and no. 

I realized a number of phrases and polished up features of my clumsy grammar. However I think that if my spouse have been to stroll out of her dwelling workplace, proper this very second, and converse 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 fireplace up Duolingo, fully on autopilot and discover myself sucked into the abyss yet again.

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