If I were to start talking about language learning, what’s the first thing you’d think of?
Boring school lessons? Painful exams? That time you tried to order a pizza in Italian but failed miserably?
Back in the day, these were probably some of the standard things that came to mind.
And then a little green owl came along and changed the game forever.
In little over a decade, the owl has become synonymous with — perhaps even indistinguishable from — learning languages.
He’s taken an ignorant sod like me and turned me into a total language-learning addict!
So how has he achieved so much in such little time?
It’s time we got to know Mr Big.
(aka: the Duolingo owl)
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Duolingo owl name
Believe it or not, the owl actually has a name.
I know. Most of us have just come to know him (yes, the owl is a he) simply as the owl, or the bird, or the feathered green guy that won’t stop reminding me to do Spanish.
But yes, he does have a name.
The Duolingo owl is called Duo.
Why is the Duolingo owl green?
In-house banter, apparently.
From the day they launched Duolingo, co-founders Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker knew they wanted a mascot.
They didn’t have too many requirements. But Hacker had one.
Don’t make it green.
I’d say it’s worked out for the best though. Could you really imagine Duo being anything else?
OK, but why is the Duolingo owl… an owl?
No banter here (as far as I’m aware).
Apparently, it’s because, in some cultures, owls represent knowledge.
Duolingo’s an educational platform, so this actually makes a lot of sense.
Unless you come from a culture where owls represent something else. Like death.
Yep, this is 100% true. Some people view owls as a harbinger of the underworld.
Despite the memes (we’ll get to those in a sec) this wasn’t actually intentional. In fact, the guys at Duolingo had to seriously consider whether it was a suitable mascot for a global brand.
In the end, they (thankfully) stuck with it.
Duolingo owl evolution
Duo’s an owl of many moods.
I’ve seen him cycle through a whole spectrum of emotions in the space of a 5-minute lesson.
But this is the Duo of today. The owl has actually done a lot of growing up over the years.
Things were quite different back when Duolingo launched in 2011…
the original duolingo owl (2011)
The OG Duo. Only real ones will remember.
It’s actually not a million miles away from the Duo we have today.
The two dimensions, the chest feathers, the simple organic shapes.
The obvious differences are in the face. There’s no real beak or eyes or anything. It’s just his name.
And let’s be honest — he’s anything but cute. This isn’t an owl you can get emotionally attached to.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the OG Duo didn’t last long.
And with the launch of IOS 7, Duo swiftly acquired a brand new, 3D form.
He got himself some eyes, a beak and some proper feathers.
He started to look like a real owl!
You can see a lot of the core elements of the current Duo in the 2012 version. Some of the colours and features are very similar.
But he’s still a bit rough around the edges here. Those eyes and wings are more like leaves, and the beak looks like a couple of tortilla chips glued together.
Now we’re talking.
Duolingo stuck with this version of Duo for a solid 4 years. And it’s easy to see why.
This guy’s a lot cuter, warmer and cuddlier than the first two. He goes back to the smoother organic shapes of the first Duo, but starts to bring in some of the cartoonier features of the current.
Everything’s just a lot more rounded. The beak’s smoother. The leaves are gone. And also notice how the feet aren’t attached to his body anymore.
With the 2014 Duo, Duolingo finally had a mascot that could pull at your heartstrings!
And here we have the Duo of today.
Isn’t he adorable?
Just look at those big ol’ eyes. Like butter wouldn’t melt!
The current Duo was actually part of a much bigger redesign of Duolingo in general.
We’re talking root and stem changes. A total aesthetical overhaul.
Going for a simpler, more expressive Duo gave the design team a lot more room for manoeuvre (in other words: more ways to guilt-trip you into doing your lessons).
By the sounds of it, this change actually made a big difference. Duolingo noticed after the rollout that users were completing more lessons and there was also an uptick in Plus subscriptions.
It’s no surprise then that Duolingo have doubled down on the new look. Duo’s new simplistic style was rolled out across the platform — from the lesson tree to the 10 Duolingo characters introduced at DuoCon 2020!
Duolingo owl threats
It’s ironic: the cuter Duo became, the more people began to fear him.
The nagging, the crying, the not-so-subtle passive aggression.
You don’t want to get in his bad books. Ignore his notifications at your peril. If he says it’s time for Spanish, you’d better believe it and stop what you’re doing.
He doesn’t care if you’re driving, sitting an exam, getting married.
You’d better pull over, leave your exam, step away from the alter — because he doesn’t take rejection well. At all.
Of course, this is all wildly exaggerated (at least I think/hope so).
Duo doesn’t actually threaten people. He’s a harmless owl who only wants the best for Duolingo’s millions of learners.
But he’s definitely got a passive-aggressive streak. People really started to notice this with the third generation Duo. Back then, he only had two expressions: neutral Duo, and crying Duo.
The crying Duo really hit hard. Miss a lesson and he’d pop up in your email inbox standing in a puddle of owl tears.
He knew exactly what he was doing with those guilt trips. The same goes for the mobile notifications he’d send out. These were really passive-aggressive. If you didn’t do a lesson for a few days, he’d pop up with something like:
Like woah. You could really smell the smoke.
There was something genuinely disconcerting about these messages. It sounds a little OTT, but wait until you get one yourself, and then you’ll know what everyone’s getting at.
Duolingo owl memes – a few of the best
Naturally, this led to a whole raft of memes rolling out. This cute little owl started getting mocked up with guns, knives, baseball bats etc.
They’ve been doing the rounds for years and I still can’t get enough of them.
And the cool thing is the guys at Duolingo are completely aware.
(Go and have a look at their TikTok when you get a chance and thank me later!).
Naturally, then, an ode to Duo would be incomplete without a few of his finest depictions…
here’s a nice one of Duo with a gun
who could forget this charming one of Duo with a knife
if you’re going to ignore him, remember to lock your doors
if you want to see your family again…
Duolingo owl fan art
Duo’s also a bit of a celebrity. His adoring fans just can’t help but recreate him in their works of art.
Duolingo love celebrating Duo, so they love featuring fan art on their Instagram.
Some of my faves:
Duolingo owl plush
Yes, you can even get yourself your very own Duo plushie, so he can be with you every hour of every day.
The guys at Duolingo were kind enough to send me one last year. He’s been following me around ever since!
I don’t think they’re available to buy at the moment, but every now and then Duolingo just kinda give them away on their social media channels. Just pipe up when they’re doing a giveaway and you’ll stand a good chance of getting one.
What next for Duo?
World domination? A quiet life in the country?
Or will he stick to the day job until everyone knows at least one other language?
His options are endless. It’s Duo’s world, and we’re all living in it!