By Emily Portalatin
Has anyone else noticed the inability for anyone to be consistent these days? People are always CHANGING THEIR MINDS and TRYING NEW THINGS. Geez, it’s not like humans are dynamic and ever-changing. Pick your thing, stick to it, and don’t even THINK about getting tired of it, even if it hurts! Back in MY day, it was cool and impressive to do the same thing for years, even if you no longer gained much from it. Nowadays, it’s all “burnout” this, “I used to be smart, what happened” that… ha… Call me VOPLLS 1080P because I am projecting.
You see, I am the least consistent and decisive of them all; I am one of those annoying “I have no preference, so you should choose!” people, and the only thing consistent about my major is that I don’t have one. I understand the difficulty of committing to something, especially when your heart’s not in it. However, there is one thing, perhaps the most consistent thing in my life, something that I simply cannot let go of even though it is sometimes more of a chore than a tool, and I have been oh, so tired: my Duolingo streak.
During Freshman year of high school, I took an Italian class. Despite my dad’s annoyance that I wasn’t taking Spanish, and MY annoyance that he told my mom not to teach it to me when I was a baby, AKA the best time to become multilingual (…NOW you want me to learn it?), I did enjoy Italian; it was interesting and I understood it. One fateful day, I decided to give Duolingo a shot. I was like, Sure, why not? I’d love to learn more Italian, and pairing it with my Italian classes would make it a good tool. Maybe years down the line I’ll be fluent! Ah… poor naive Emily… four-and-a-half years later and I’m not even CLOSE. I knew Duolingo was not much of a tool for fluency on its own, but I thought I would have kept going strong and been further along than I am now.
Over the years I engaged in the Duolingo grindset, even surviving those stupid memes about the owl threatening you to do your lesson. At the time of writing this, I have a 1,657 day streak and shall see 1,700 days in November. I get surprised when people freak out at my streak since I am used to having it, but deep down I know it is sort of crazy. This next milestone has honestly gotten me rethinking some of my life choices. Duolingo is the most consistent thing in my life, which is impressive but also a little sad. But hey, the pursuit of knowledge is nothing to frown at, right?
At first, Duolingo greatly expanded my Italian knowledge. The experience of using it was productive, and I felt wrinkly-brained when the resident “Staten Island Italian” kid in my class asked what the word for “turtle” was and I knew it was “tartaruga” even though we hadn’t learned it in class. Over time, however, I started to feel a lull in both my Duolingo activity and my overall effort in learning Italian. I suppose I started to feel it during my junior year of high school, which was the year that classes were online and I did not have the motivation to study anything. I figured, if I am doing the bare minimum in Italian class just for the grade, why not do the same for my Duolingo streak? …My brother in Christ, you could’ve just STOPPED. Senior year was then in-person, but I cared so little for Italian work in Junior year that I did not feel prepared for more. At that point, the only language tool I was using was Duolingo, which I KNEW from the beginning was not the way to truly learn a language, but I didn’t CARE. My streak was already sizable and I took care of it despite being exhausted. I went from being excited to learn and engaging heavily in it to speeding through the easiest lessons I could just to get my streak. Was I too far gone? I know I am largely to blame, but should one not consider the aforementioned external factors that made me lose my passion for learning, as well as the Duolingo app’s general crappiness?
Duolingo is not perfect, which may have also impacted my effort back then. The app has flaws that would lead users to find it ineffective or lose interest. The practice structure can leave something to be desired. While there is a mix of listening, speaking, fill-in-the-blank, and word box questions, the answers start to get predictable, especially when you are translating into English. With word box questions, you typically form a sentence’s translation based on provided words. If a question proposes the sentence “Ero davvero imbarazzata” and the word choices are “I”, “really”, “embarrassed”, and “was”, it is clear what the answer will be. I understand that it is my responsibility to mentally register everything so I can understand the grammar and vocabulary, basically teaching myself, but at least make sure there are more options than just the correct words! It is also easy to get the answer if you click on a word in the question, as Duolingo will literally TELL YOU what it means in English. If you want to take the easy way out even FURTHER by not doing speaking or listening questions, you can click what is essentially a “skip” button and miss out on what little conversational and pronunciation review you can do on this app. None of this is hard to discover, and can foster laziness.
Duolingo does not make it easy for you to get questions wrong, either, and turns learning from mistakes into more of an obstacle than it should be. You get five hearts when you begin a lesson, and if it is a particularly hard lesson you will run out. From there, it costs 450 gems for a refill if you don’t want to lose your progress and repeat the lesson all over again later. When I first discovered refills, I naturally took advantage since I had accumulated a lot of gems and they are easy to earn if you practice, but I still ended up running out faster than I thought I would. I made them back in the weeks and months afterward, but come on, this is quite the vicious cycle. In fact, I ran out of hearts while outlining this article and currently do not have enough gems for a refill. Great, just great… Who do they think I am, Elon Musk’s dad? Don’t get me started on how frustrating it used to be doing a lesson at 11:55 PM, only to realize I had run out of hearts, entering a panic at the possibility of losing my streak over such a silly roadblock. One day, however, I found on closer inspection that you can also regain hearts by… practicing? It is easy to miss, but there is a “Practice to Earn Hearts” button in the hearts menu (which I never felt the need to click on beforehand since I can already CLEARLY SEE how many hearts I have). The practice they give you also counts toward your streak. So… WHAT is the point of hearts then?! Running out of hearts is supposed to stop you from being able to practice, but then this hidden feature ensures that running out of hearts DOESN’T EVEN MATTER because they’ll let you practice anyway??? I guess it helps people such as I, who sometimes study late and need to get their streak, and it could MAYBE fight discouragement overall… but it still doesn’t make much sense and goes to show how Duolingo’s overall system can be nonsensical. There is also the paid Duolingo version, but that is a whole other can of worms and I may seethe with rage if I try to delve into it.
I seemingly hate Duolingo. Now what? Should I not quit and take what initiative I have left for learning Italian elsewhere? That would be the most logical course of action. However, any part of my brain that once handled logic has been worn down and melded vaguely into the shape of a green owl. Sure, Duolingo isn’t ideal, but MY PRECIOUS STREAK… where else will I receive validation?!?! I am sure others have experienced this: going from doing something for the intrinsic sake of doing it, to doing it because you get something out of it, whether it be money, praise, a high GPA, or a streak. It is also hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I am having these issues with something I have spent over four years on; it feels like I have invested too much of my life into it to back away. Imagine if I was experiencing this disillusionment toward something ACTUALLY IMPORTANT like other people do when they no longer like something they’ve dedicated years to, like religion or sexual orientation? I think I would burst into flames.
While Duolingo’s issues upset me, none of this has been for nothing. I can not deny the help that it technically has been, even if I was stationary for a while. Without Duolingo, I likely would have lost Italian entirely, and it does have certain helpful learning formats. Additionally, the issues I mentioned mostly only rear their heads when you fall into a burnout spell and are SEARCHING for the easy way out, like I was. While it is not easy to retrain your brain, I have found some success ever since I had my epiphany, which is keeping me going and gradually making me more eager to learn what I can from the owl again. It takes work, but is not impossible. Just try not to use Duolingo by itself if you want greater progress. It is helpful for certain practice and forming foundations, but you will not achieve anything close to fluency using it alone. There are other, better resources that I am now trying to use as well. At least, while I can’t find the heart to stop using Duolingo, I am forming a more well-rounded system that happens to include the app.
I will end by relaying a lesson from Jacque Rancière, who wrote of the following in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation: a French professor named Jacotot was to teach French to a class of students who only knew Flemish, a language which Jacotot himself did not know. He gave them a book filled with both Flemish text and the coinciding French translation, providing no other guidance. To his surprise, Jacotot found that his students were able to teach themselves using only the book and create complex French sentences of their own. The point Rancière is trying to make is this: if one truly wants to learn, they will do it. Now that I am breaking out of my Duolingo slump, I remember just how much I wanted and still want to learn Italian, so that is what I am going to do, moreso intrinsically motivated again. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there is no will, or where your will is dwindling, do not be too hard on yourself; burnout can often be out of your control. What you CAN sort of control is what happens next. Best of luck to anyone struggling with something they were once passionate about. Here’s to 1,700 days.