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Duolingo and my history of lazy Spanish practice

Language learning and the limits of gamification

In August 2016 I “conquered the Spanish skill tree” on Duolingo, and got a virtual golden trophy. I’m still far from fluent, however.

This morning I completed a practice session on Duolingo, the popular language learning site. Nothing remarkable about this, but I’ve been doing it faithfully every day for nearly four years now. Yes, I have logged practice time on Duolingo every single day since January 3, 2014 — easy to remember because it coincides with the day I began testosterone therapy, a significant milestone in my gender transition. By my calculation, my Duolingo streak now stands at 1459 days.

Unfortunately, my recorded streak was broken in March 2017, as I didn’t notice I’d only scored 10 out of the minimum 20 points I’d set as a daily goal. I briefly contemplated quitting, then realized how foolish that would be. I was here to learn a language, not win a game or earn cred for how many consecutive days I’ve “played” it. And yet, it’s the gamification — earning experience points and virtual currency (“lingots”), passing checkpoints, completing achievements, and maintaining that all-important streak — that is a large part of what makes language learning on Duolingo fun for me, and something to look forward to rather than a tedious chore.

Is this form of education the most effective way to learn a language, though? Am I truly 57% fluent in Spanish, as the site currently claims? (As I’ll explain later, I’ve also studied German and French on Duolingo for short periods of time, but returned to Spanish as my primary language of study.) And how does that level of fluency translate into real-time, offline communication?

Any bilingual person will likely tell you that the best way to learn another language is total immersion; spending time surrounded by native speakers who have little or no proficiency in your own native language. Books, recordings, and apps can be tremendously helpful, but they’re no substitute for direct conversation. And for me, trying to keep up with native Spanish speakers talking at normal conversational speed is very difficult. Fear of making silly mistakes and looking foolish holds me back from advancing my language skills in the real world.

Studying on Duolingo was far from my first attempt at learning another language. Like many US-Americans born after 1969, I was exposed to Spanish in early childhood via the groundbreaking children’s television show, Sesame Street. I also had the advantage of growing up in a house filled with language instruction books, records, and tapes, as studying various languages was a hobby of my mother’s. Neither of us made a serious attempt to become fluent in any of them, however.

Classic 1970s Sesame Street sketch, featuring Luis (Emilio Delgado) and Maria (Sonia Manzano).

I took Spanish classes for five years in middle and high school, and did well enough on a standardized achievement test to place out of the two-year language study requirement at Northwestern University. I didn’t study or practice another language again until senior year in college, when I decided to learn German, thinking I might later use that language instead of Spanish for the reading proficiency exam required by many Ph.D. programs.

I greatly enjoyed my year of German classes, thanks mostly to an energetic and enthusiastic teacher. I was one of the best students in his class, to the point where he finally said Nicht immer [Pax] to give my classmates more of a chance to answer questions. But after graduating from Northwestern and enrolling in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at UC Berkeley, I dropped out early and unexpectedly due to prolonged illness, and saw no reason to continue my German studies. I now have little recall of that language, though I did briefly take it up again on Duolingo when Trump was elected and I fantasized about moving to queer-friendly, vegan-friendly Berlin.

My adopted home state of California has a very large Spanish-speaking population. When I began spending time in San Francisco’s Mission district, I found I could read many of the Spanish-language billboards. I still could not follow the conversations of native speakers, however, nor understand most Spanish-language television unless the words were printed on the screen. To this day I sometimes watch 100 Mexicanos Dijeron, the Mexican version of the game show Family Feud, as I can correctly translate many of the words that are posted on the game board, but the host and contestants still speak too quickly for me to understand most of what is said.

Mexico is one of very few countries I’ve been to outside of the U.S., the others being Canada and Costa Rica. (I’m generally averse to travel, even more so now than in the past, for various reasons.) My first trip to Mexico was an afternoon stopover in Ensenada during a day cruise from San Diego with my grandmother. My second was my honeymoon at a resort in Puerto Peñasco, a timeshare gifted to us for the week by my father-in-law.

In neither case did I need to speak or understand any significant amount of Spanish. When walking into an Ensenada shop I was greeted with “Buenas tardes”, which I returned in kind, but when my white-skinned grandmother followed me in, the shopkeeper immediately switched to “Good afternoon.” The pool attendant at the Puerto Peñasco resort asked me to give my room number in Spanish to get a fresh towel, but all other communication there was in English. I did need to read labels at a local grocery store so I could make sure we weren’t eating animal products, but we ate mostly at the resort. When I tried to order in Spanish at the couple of restaurants we went to, the servers quickly switched to English, realizing my limited proficiency.

The same held true when we visited Costa Rica, though there I did make a bit more use of my Spanish skills when ordering a restaurant where the server only spoke very limited English. Regardless, being a native English speaker is a significant privilege, particularly when visiting tourist-friendly areas. I have great respect for native Spanish speakers who have learned English as a second language.

Painting of the author and other Free Farm Stand volunteers at Parque Niños Unidos, San Francisco.

Some years later, I began volunteering at the Free Farm Stand, giving away locally-grown food to whoever came to our weekly sharing in San Francisco’s Mission district. Many of our guests and volunteers were native Spanish speakers, which gave me the opportunity to practice my comprehension and conversational skills. I learned that the word for “sweet potato” is camote, not papa dulce, the literal but incorrect translation which just got me confused looks when I said it. I learned that some Spanish speakers call a peach a melocotón, but others call it a durazno.

While I enjoyed learning the words for the various fruits and vegetables we distributed, my vocabulary and conversation skills were still very limited. When Spanish-speaking guests thought I was a native speaker based on my words and (likely) my skin color, they would sometimes speak rapidly to me, at which point I would apologize — Lo siento, hablo solo un poquito de español — and find a bilingual volunteer for expert translation.

I began my gender transition during this time, which presented additional challenges when communicating with Spanish speakers. I’m non-binary, and Spanish is a very gendered language; all nouns and adjectives are either masculine or feminine. While native trans and non-binary communities have been working out various alternatives, such as ending adjectives in x or “@” in printed text to indicate gender neutrality (Latinx, Chican@, etc.), I settled for using masculine endings to refer to myself when necessary.

This still confused people, as early in my transition nearly everyone, understandably, still read me as female. One of the volunteers with limited English skills, who left for a while and came back after I’d transitioned, continued to use feminine word endings when referring to me, subtly correcting me when I used masculine ones. We were trying to learn from each other, and she just figured I was making a mistake; she wasn’t being intentionally trans-antagonistic. A bilingual volunteer said she would explain to her that I was transgénero, but I didn’t press the issue.

Before learning about Duolingo, I had also studied Spanish with Pimsleur audiobooks. I went through 30 units of lessons, but it didn’t “stick”. The recordings were boring—if I was reclining while listening, I often nodded off — and I really didn’t look forward to the lessons.

Sometimes, though, learning just isn’t fun, especially for adults, and you just have to buckle down and get through the dull parts. When I scheduled a trip to Montreal for a conference last summer, I decided to switch to French in Duolingo so that I might communicate better in that Francophone province. I only had a few weeks of practice, so knew I wouldn’t be able to learn very much, but figured it couldn’t be too difficult to switch from one Romance language to another.

Boy was I wrong. I could often barely understand the French words spoken in the lessons. I was constantly clicking the “turtle” button to repeat phrases at a slower speed, and cursed all of the silent letters (of course, English is just as terrible in that regard) and diacritical marks. For a time, I switched from the desktop to the mobile version, which had cute little cartoons and interactive conversational exercises. That was more fun, but I didn’t have a solid grounding on the grammar as I did with Spanish, so my progress was very limited.

As it turned out, I felt tired and slightly ill for much of the Montreal trip, so I barely left the hotel. Once again, I was catered to as a native English speaker — despite being at an international conference with attendees from all over the world— and never really needed to use French. I was happy to recognize the words eau chaud on a kettle as the hot water I was seeking for my tea, but that was about the extent of the use of my reading skills. When going to a nearby restaurant and seeing that the menu on the wall was entirely in French, I started to apologize — Désolé, je ne parle pas francais. The server immediately said we didn’t have to speak French, and gave us English menus.

Upon returning from Montreal, I soon abandoned my French lessons and took up Spanish on Duolingo again. I noticed some changes in the desktop version of the site, including a new set of Achievements to earn.

Some of my “Achievements” on Duolingo.

I set out to finish all of them, writing to tech support in frustration when the site did not credit me for completing 20 practice sessions without getting any answers wrong (my recorded progress is still stuck at 17/20). Recently, I filed another report in near-panic when I could not complete a practice session, fearing another break in my streak. Fortunately, I was able to complete the session successfully late that night; I usually do them early in the morning, with reminders sent to my e-mail and phone in case I forget.

I mentioned the full length of my streak in my tech support request, then felt silly for doing so; what was I expecting, that Duolingo might use me as some shining example of success or loyalty to their brand? As this essay illustrates, I’m hardly a good role model in that regard.

Ultimately, my limited success with language comprehension and conversation is on me. Much of the difficulty comes down to my comfort level when interacting with strangers in public, a task that became even more difficult following my gender transition. But I can’t blame Duolingo, Pimsleur, or my high school Spanish teacher for any of that. I still recommend Duolingo to everyone; I think it’s a very useful tool. But a tool is all that it is; achieving true fluency requires much, much more.