Greg Dickens
Mar 7 · 5 min read
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I moved to Greece this past fall after quitting my job in banking. The first thing I wanted to focus on before I got around to all of the project ideas I had in my head was to learn Greek.

On the first day I arrived in Athens, I enrolled in a language school close to my apartment and started going to class every day, Monday to Friday. Classes are 4 hours per day, with another 3–4 hours of homework on top of that.

In case you’re wondering, yes that’s a lot of Greek to absorb.

A few months later and I am getting up to a level where I feel comfortable speaking and can understand most of what is going around me —but learning new words is a big challenge, it really takes time and repetition to absorb an entire vocabulary.

So a little while back, I thought, why not add Duolingo into the mix to help with the vocab and to keep things fresh. I was familiar with Duolingo as I had experimented with it on and off over the years to try to keep from forgetting Spanish, but I had never really tried it for a language I was actually going to use every day.

But what I found was really surprising: as my Duolingo streaks and lingots added up, my confidence in my classes and speaking Greek while out and about actually started to go down.

What’s going on here?

I shook it off for the first few days and put it down to having a couple of bad days in a row, but after a week of feeling shakier out in the real world, I pulled the plug.

It was tough for me to put my finger on exactly what the problem was, so I did some searching around to see what other people’s experience has been with Duolingo.

It turns out, it’s actually not that difficult to find stories of people who went through the entire course and find that they can only communicate at the most basic level.

Ok, this is for someone who is exclusively learning with Duolingo. It would be a pretty high bar to set to think that you can learn a language exclusively from an app and I’m sure most people don’t have that the expectation…

But how could it be that using Duolingo as a supplement to my full-time language learning was actually making me worse?

My experience with Codeacademy

It reminded me in many ways of how several years back I was teaching myself to code. Like many people, my first stop was Codeacademy. (this was in the early days when it was all free)

I remember going through their entire Ruby course in a couple of weeks time and then afterwards I couldn’t even set up the development environment on my computer.

Once I finally got to the point that I had a blank text editor in front of me, I was hopelessly lost without the step-by-step instructions that are spoon fed to you in Codeacademy.

It’s amazing how soon you start depend on the crutches that are given to you.

Thinking back to my experience with Codeacademy, I was interested to hear other people’s experiences as well, so I searched around again and found a great blog post.

The author, Alex Coleman talks about how Codeacademy lacks two key factors in learning:

  • Learning in context
  • Practice in a real-life environment

The fact that you are just told to do coding exercises, with no idea how they fit together into the wider context of an application removes the big picture that you are working to achieve from your learning experience.

And by restricting the environment that you are learning in, you are not able to experiment on your own and make the connections to the real-world applications that you are actually going to use coding for.

So as soon as that comfortable learning environment is taken away, you are utterly and completely lost.

And it wasn’t until I set up my environment on my own, worked through a couple of Javascript books and their exercises to pick up core concepts, and then built lots of increasingly difficult projects that coding really clicked for me.

Back to Duolingo

I think the same thing is going on with Duolingo.

  • You have an ultra-comfortable learning environment that spoon feeds you answers (with your phone’s auto-correct on top of that!)
  • Endless amounts of 1-line exercises with no wider purpose (like a conversation, dialog or real-life scenario)
  • No indication at all of how the bigger picture of grammar and etymology fits together (maybe not as important for some languages, but very very important for Greek)

Within just a matter of days, I started to feel lost if I was outside of this comfortable environment and wasn’t given a set plan of exercises to follow.

Distraction disguised as learning

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have an entirely negative view of Codeacademy or Duolingo. I think they are a nice way for someone to dip their toe into the water of a new language or coding…

But as a long-term tool to get real-world results, I have my doubts.

And that’s why I get worried when I see articles like this recent one at Bloomberg titled: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You.

The article talks about how recently Duolingo has been hiring developers from companies like Zynga, who produced addictive games like Candy Crush and FarmVille, in order to mimic their addictive behavior.

But don’t worry, according to a quote in the article from founder Luis von Ahn:

Duolingo isn’t addictive in a “harmful way”

Yet at the same time in the same Bloomberg article, there is this quote from Duolingo’s VP of Product Jorge Mazal:

Fluency, Mazal says, isn’t really the goal. “When you’re done using the product,” he says, “you feel like you’re a little bit better as a person. That’s really what people are going for. That’s what we try to give them.”

Interesting, because my ultimate goal in learning Greek is to become fluent in Greek. Not to feel a bit better as a person because I’m telling myself that I’m learning Greek.

I would be very wary of anyone who is saying that their “addiction” isn’t bad like all other addictions. In the end, they are trying to get your attention and drive their ad-revenues, and the more attention they are able to get from you by creating this addiction, the better they perform.

And helping you to actually learn the language, by their own admission, is not their goal.

Just like with my experience coding and my experience with Greek now, getting back to basics and grinding through is the real way to success, but that’s the one we try to avoid.

We would like to think there is some quick hack, or that we can learn something with it feeling like a simple game, but the true is that real learning is hard work and frustrating.

Don’t shy away from that, embrace it.

Sometimes you have to look at that blank page staring back at you before you can really learn something.

Greg Dickens

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