andrew burke





My App Habits: Duolingo

Posted on: 2023-11-05

A while back I read "Atomic Habits" and found I was already doing a lot of what it recommended. One of the reasons for that is that I've been using Duolingo a lot this year, and clearly Duolingo's developers have read "Atomic Habits" too.

Duolingo uses every trick in the book to get you to use the app more:

These are all tricks that in-app-purchase and pay-to-play games have mastered over the years, and they skirt along the edge of "dark pattern" but it's hard to feel too bad about them, since they're being used to help you learn a new language. It seems to be working anyhow: my streak has recently passed the 300 day mark:

Duolingo award for a 300-day streak

I got into Duolingo at the start of 2023, as I had a trip to Italy planned for May and wanted to pick up enough Italian to get around. I started with the free version, which had certain limitations and a fair number of ads. Although the ads were generally pretty high-quality (a sign that Duolingo is doing very well!) I decided to pay for the ad-free version. It was still less expensive than a dedicated course, and I could already tell this was going to be a worthwhile way to learn languages that fit with my schedule.

With many years of studying French, some Latin in High School, and being a fan of opera, music, and going to restaurants, it turned out I already knew quite a bit of Italian, so I was able to blow through a lot of the lessons quite quickly. Once I got to Italy, I was still very uncertain about speaking the language to any native speaker, especially about anything more complicated than where I'd like to sit at a restaurant ("forse fuori?") but I could at least read signs.

After I got back from Italy, I didn't feel I needed to continue learning more Italian for now, but I still had half a year left in my paid lessons, so I decided to try another language. After some pondering I settled on Mandarin Chinese.

I'm not sure when I might get to actually visiting China: it's a very long way to travel and geopolitics are kind of messy right now. That said, there's plenty of Chinese around even in my life here in North America. I'm not really trying to learn to speak the language (the multiple tones on vowels are really hard for me to wrap my mouth around—I have enough trouble between é and ê in French) but I'm very interested in finally understanding the writing. I've always liked the look of Chinese writing, but it's just been random lines and squiggles to me all my life. Now after several months of Duolingo I still can't read much, but at least I'm starting to recognize words.

That said, there are definitely some shortcomings to Duolingo's "small bites" approach. I've found that there are two ways to learn things: by getting a bit of exposure every day and picking things up by context, or by digging deep and really working at learning. Duolingo is great for the first kind of learning, but not so great for the second kind.

To really get to know Chinese writing, I realized I needed to step out of the app's little two-minute lessons and apply myself to actually learning to make the characters myself. Instead of wasting lots of paper, I've found the best way is to draw them on my iPad with the Apple Pencil and the Procreate app:

Practicing beginner Chinese writing on an iPad with Procreate and Apple Pencil

(For what it's worth, it turns out "Studio Pen" is better for this kind of thing than "Oriental Brush")

I had trouble focusing on this practice, as writing out Chinese characters and then erasing the page to start again kept reminding me of the scene at the calligraphy house in "Hero" and then I'd have to go and watch the movie again.

Thankfully I've just discovered that Duolingo has a built-in writing tutor, where I can practice the characters for each lesson directly in the app and earn points, while not being distracted by thoughts of Zhang Ziyi and her yearning rake.

Duolingo Let's Learn Hanzi screen
Duolingo practicing writing 'hao' in Chinese

The most exciting moment in my Chinese journey was just a few weeks after starting when I idly decided to re-watch John Woo's "Hard Boiled" which opens with a spectacular shoot out in a tea house. The establishing shot right beforehand tilts down the neon sign outside - and I recognized the character for "TEA"!

Screen capture from John Woo's 'Hard Boiled' of a neon sign saying 'Tea' in Chinese

A few days later I was walking down Spring Garden road and passed a Chinese couple talking about something and I'm pretty sure I overheard one of them finish a sentence with the interrogative "ma".

I'm still just starting, but what used to be just random symbols and unintelligible syllables to me is now beginning to have little pieces of meaning. It's like a window into another world, or putting on glasses and suddenly having things appear clearer.

I think I'm going to work my way through to the end of Section 2 in Duolingo Chinese, which is where I stopped in the Italian course, and then try another language. Arabic is another important world language that has just looked like squiggles and sounded like random sounds all my life, and I'd love to open a window into that world too.

Duolingo has dozens of languages available, and they don't care how you approach them. All my life I've figured that I would need to go deep in one language at a time, but now with Duolingo I can get some basics in multiple languages. So after two units of Arabic, I might move on to Korean, Japanese, Hindi, and maybe Swahili or even go back to Latin or Greek. Or even High Valeryan or Klingon, which Duolingo actually has. Unfortunately they don't have Quenya or Lang Belta. Yet.

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