How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Duolingo

I’ve been slowly catching on to the fact that this is an entirely different kind of language learning. Altogether.

Can you guess the answer, boys and girls at home?

Last month, I started using Duolingo again. I expected that I’d be very interested for a week or two, and then drop off to never using it, just like I’ve done the past five or six times I’ve tried to use Duolingo.

But this time, it’s stuck. At least, if my 39-day “streak” is to believed.1It’s not. I cheated with a “streak freeze” on multiple days when the stress of election + pandemic + life in general were too much for me to care about learning Japanese.

The difference this time is that a few days into using the app, I got to the point where it started frustrating the hell out of me. I’m using it to learn Japanese, and the first several sections were mostly just a review of stuff I already knew. It was useful as a refresher, since it’s been years since I’ve taken any classes, but it wasn’t much of a challenge. But then — suddenly — it started showing me words and kanji that I’d never seen before. I started failing out of sections, having to “buy” more hearts, or shut the app down until the next day.

This is an outrage! was my first thought. This is not the way language learning is supposed to work! You’re supposed to go through the fundamentals of some new point of grammar, then memorize a list of new vocabulary words, and then get quizzed on how much you’ve learned. What’s the point of asking me questions that I haven’t yet learned the answer to?

It didn’t take me too long to realize that this was just an artifact of years in school being a suck-up who has to do well on tests. It has little to do with how we learn languages naturally. And really, it has nothing to do with learning that we’re doing voluntarily, with no one “grading” our progress except ourselves.

If the real goal is to learn the language, instead of getting a “perfect” score, then the real purpose of each question isn’t to test whether you know the answer, but teach you the answer. I’ve found myself using all the test-taking tricks I’ve accumulated over the years: trying to guess the right answer from context, process of elimination, and matching patterns. Which is, not coincidentally, the same thing I’d be doing if I were dropped into the middle of Tokyo with my limited knowledge of hiragana and katakana.2I know this from experience, as a traveler who found all his hours worth of study had suddenly vanished the second I stepped off the plane.

I’m assuming it’s the same philosophy as immersive language learning, but I’ve never taken a class with that format, so I wouldn’t know. Every time I’ve tried to learn, it’s been a process of reading an introduction, getting an overview and some practice from the teacher, then memorizing everything for a quiz. Move on to the next chapter and repeat. Then do another cram session to try and memorize everything for the midterm and then the final.

Duolingo’s structure is one of those extremely rare cases where the free-to-play structure isn’t just an insultingly crass business model, but actually works in sync with the learning process. You lose a heart every time you answer a question wrong, and if you run out, you either have to pay up to refill, or wait a while until it recharges. I’m not 100% positive that it was entirely intentional, but it ends up being a really elegant self-correcting and self-reinforcing system: you move quickly through the material that’s easy or that you’ve already learned, so it just becomes reinforcement through repetition; the “stigma” of a missed question (even if you couldn’t have known the answer in the first place) makes the correct answer stand out more in your mind.

It’s entirely possible that this is either obvious to everyone who uses the app, or is a well-known idea in language learning. It was a slow surprise to me, who’s only ever used the flash-cards-and-tests method. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense: back in high school and college, getting something wrong on a test or in a paper would annoy me so much that I can still remember the mistakes now, decades later, even though I’ve long forgotten just about everything else in the material that I’d “memorized” at the time.

Another big advantage that may be specific to Japanese: Duolingo doesn’t f around when it comes to using kanji. Even though I’ve taken several structured Japanese classes (as an adult), bad timing and needing refreshers has mean I’ve taken beginning and intermediate-level classes multiple times instead of advancing. They’ve always started with the hiragana and katakana, occasionally including trivially easy kanji, but saving most of them for “sophomore” level classes. As a result, I got so used to avoiding them that I never made an effort to start. Which means I can read a fraction of a percent of the actual Japanese I see, and it’s often in the form of “Something wa something something kara exit please.”

Duolingo says “think fast!” and then throws me into the deep end of the beginner’s kanji pool. As a result, I’ve learned probably a dozen or so over the past few weeks, which is about a dozen more than I’ve learned over the past 10 years. More importantly, though, I’m not scared of them anymore. They’re just another thing to learn, and like everything else, they get more memorable the more I see them.

A structured approach to learning kanji goes through them in a specific sequence, teaching you the multiple readings, the proper stroke order, the meaning, and some example compounds. There’s always been a strong implication that you have to memorize all of that, and practice writing them in a workbook a dozen times each, to have any hope of making it through. Duolingo just uses them. I’m sure I don’t have the correct pronunciation for all of them, and I sure as hell couldn’t write all of them long-hand.3Which is less and less necessary thanks to Japanese keyboards that let you type them in phonetically and pick the correct one from a list. I don’t plan to do any calligraphy, after all. But I can read them, and I’m getting better at distinguishing them from each other. Which is how you learn languages naturally, by seeing them used over and over again and gradually “mastering” it, instead of memorization out of context. It’s even how we learn our own language, and why phrases like “for all intensive purposes” come up.

So I’ve been enjoying having all my teacher’s pet tendencies beaten out of me, and making better progress by being unafraid to learn from mistakes. There’s still a lot of flashcard-like repetition — at this point, I’ve heard 部屋 (heya, or room) more often than Andre 3000 — but it still feels like I’m making steady progress. I’d still be hopelessly lost in an actual conversation, but at least the language isn’t as intimidating as it’s always seemed. You don’t have to know it inside and out, just start using it and don’t get stressed about getting it wrong. As I understand it, the Japanese have an ancient proverb to that effect: 部屋には机が三つあります.4There are three desks in the room.