in focus

‘I’m a Duolingo addict!’ The language app you just can’t put down

Nicole Vassell studied Spanish on her phone 650 days in a row, until the pressure to keep up her ‘daily streak’ got too much. She explores why 37 million people are hooked on learning a new language

Sunday 05 November 2023 06:30 GMT
Duo the owl: Duolingo’s friendly, feathered ambassador
Duo the owl: Duolingo’s friendly, feathered ambassador (Alamy Stock Photo)

I do it in bed, just before I fall asleep. Other times, I sneak away from my desk for a quick fix in the office bathroom. Occasionally, it’s during dinner with friends. And once, regrettably, right in the middle of a date. Though it’s bizarre to some, there’s pretty much no place that I won’t pause what I’m doing to fulfil the demands of an animated green bird, beaming out at me from my phone screen. The figure in question is the Duolingo owl, and it’s had its claws in me for years.

For the past 145 days, I’ve been committed to completing at least one daily session on the world’s most popular language-learning app, Duolingo. Instead of traditional Spanish lessons, I dedicate anywhere from two to 15 minutes a day to completing exercises that give me more familiarity with the language. From learning the basics, like how to ask for a glass of water, to the more complex job of describing the joke your grandma’s dentist told her last week, the app mixes written and listening tasks with multiple-choice games to expand users’ knowledge base. Duo, the app’s feathered ambassador, and a selection of diverse characters pop up to help learners through the course with little asides.

For the most part, it feels great to be able to develop a new skill and to know that I can fend for myself more easily when on holiday. Yet, aside from the desire to become a more global linguist, part of my Duolingo dedication comes from the simple desire to keep my daily streak going. For each day I use the app, the number displayed increases. In return, there’s no gift or monetary reward. But the sweet satisfaction of knowing I’ve added another day to my total, as well as a congratulatory wave from Duo, brings me back to the app, no matter what. Among my friends, it’s become a running joke how I’ll always make time just to check in with a Spanish-speaking bird – and just how seriously I take it. (I can only imagine how they’d laugh if they knew about the disastrous month I attempted to add German and Italian to the lesson roster as well.)

Out of the app’s 37 million active users worldwide, I’m far from the only one who feels intense pride in keeping their streak alive. In September, Arizona-based student Laliya went viral on social media for marking 365 days of steady app practice with a party, complete with a green owl-shaped cake and matching decorations. “When I started Duolingo, I automatically knew that the streak was something I was going to commit to,” she explained. “I needed to complete something every day to keep me focused on the language. French is something I really want to master, and with the streak challenge, I knew it was going to keep me disciplined.”

As well as improving her French, Laliya says that keeping her Duolingo streak alive gives her a genuine sense of fulfilment that she felt was necessary to honour. “I just needed to reward myself because it’s not easy keeping up a Duolingo streak – everyone who does it can testify that there’s a bit of anxiety when you haven’t completed it for the day and you’re running out of time. Celebrating a Duolingo streak might seem small, or unnecessary, but it’s a whole year! It’s so many days of thinking about the same thing, and having it be a part of my routine… It meant a lot.”

Laliya at her Duolingo party (Provided by subject)

Jo, a retiree from Kent, began learning Ukrainian on Duolingo to better connect with the growing number of refugees that have moved to her area. For her, the motivation to learn came from wanting to “do some good in my community” – “I have the time, and it’s the least I can do.

“I’m really committed to it,” she continues. “I do find that when I have idle moments, I’ll just drop into it for fun. Could I have a conversation with somebody? No. Is my accent any good? Definitely not. But I’m back at it, every day.” Though becoming conversational in Ukrainian is the goal, Jo often finds herself on the app for hours at a time. “Once I did six hours on the app – I was unstoppable! I was consistently getting things right, so I was inspired to carry on. I tend to start at 5.30, when I wake up – and I might keep going until about half eight.”

Not only does Jo take pride in maintaining her 200-plus-day streak, she competes in additional challenges to score points and place higher on the weekly leaderboard – another element of the app that adds to its competitive allure. “The leaderboards I find are the most stressful,” Jo explains. “I want to drop down to a lower level – I’m about to be ‘demoted’ to the next leaderboard down, and I try to brush it off: ‘I don’t care about that.’ Except, I do.”

According to Bayu Prihandito, a life coach and mental health specialist, the sense of challenge and achievement that the game-based nature of the app creates means that many of its users experience genuine pleasure when their streak is maintained. “Platforms like Duolingo, or even any sort of gamification app, tap directly into our brain’s reward system,” he explains. “When we maintain a streak, the brain rewards us with some dopamine, our ‘feel-good’ hormone. Over time, this creates a feedback loop, encouraging us to return and maintain the streak.”

It’s not just the fear of losing the streak, but also the emotional aspect, the effort, and time invested to achieve it

Conversely, when the record is at risk of disruption, Duolingo users can experience emotional difficulties. Before my current four-month stint of consistent app use, I hit the milestone of 650 days before intentionally breaking the pattern – all because I found the prospect of accidentally breaking my streak too stressful. Though it mostly felt like a fun, if repetitive, habit, I couldn’t shake the sense of potential failure whenever I came close to forgetting a lesson. For others outside of the app’s addictive clutches, this may seem silly, and I’d agree – it is just a number, and losing the streak doesn’t negate nearly two years of education. The world didn’t end once I saw the counter finally reset to zero, but now, with my eyes on hitting day 200 by the end of the year, I can feel the anxiety rising once again.

“As this behaviour becomes a habit, the idea of breaking the streak can create stress and anxiety,” Prihandito notes. “In practice, it’s not just the fear of losing the streak, but also the emotional aspect, the effort, and time invested to achieve it.”

Nearly five years after first opening the app, sound engineer Josh still uses the app daily, despite long considering himself a fluent Portuguese speaker. Though Duolingo gave him a boost, Josh found that it couldn’t take him all the way; when he arrived in Brazil, three years into his streak, he “couldn’t hold a conversation”. Virtual exercises with Duo and his friends may have given him knowledge of the right words to say, but it took three months of immersion in the country to bring his skills to life. “By the time I left, I had friends who couldn’t speak English,” he says. “For a free app, it’s amazing – it gave me the tools before putting it in practice took me where I needed to be.”

In theory, there’s no reason to keep using Duolingo as consistently as he does – but 1786 days in, Josh has no plans to stop any time soon. “At the moment I don’t use it to learn anything, but I use it every day to stop that number from going back to zero,” he admits. “I’m currently in the top leaderboard league too; I’m very competitive, and I don’t want to drop out of that.”

As it stands, I’m two leaderboards away from that top level: the Diamond League. Once a user reaches that point, they gain… nothing more than pride (and the added pressure of maintaining that most revered emblem of achievement). Though the idea of competing even harder for Diamond League status is tempting, for the sake of my sanity, my job and my relationships, I’m resisting the urge to add another level of competition to my Duolingo experience.

Knowing that there are people out there who are years deep into their streaks, and still embracing the fun of the competition, is comforting. One day, I hope to be fluent in Spanish, with Duolingo merely ticking away as an occasional crutch. But until then, the streak challenge continues. Here’s to day 146...

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