The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.Lao Tzu
Hi there. I’m Matt. I’m 25… and I’m addicted to Duolingo.
As of publishing this article, my Duolingo streak stands at 1,536 days. That means, for the last 4-and-a-bit years, I have spent at least 10 minutes of every day on Duolingo and studying languages.
And I have no intention of stopping.
In this article, I’m going to unpack the evolution of my Duolingo—and language learning—addiction. We’ll explore where it started, how it developed, what it looks like today and what it might look like tomorrow.
For those of you who are new to Duolingo (and maybe language learning in general) I suspect you’ll be most interested in my results. After all, the outcome we all desire as Duolingo users is to learn languages.
So, after all this time, have I learnt any?
All will be revealed.
A warning in advance: this is a long-ass article. It’s my first on the website, so perhaps I’ve gone a little overboard in places. Then again, it’s been a long-ass journey. 1,000 words just wouldn’t do it justice!
I’ve had a lot of fun writing this. It’s been great to look back after so many years and fully appreciate just how far I’ve come. However, if you’re pressed for time and you’d like to skip to specific parts of the piece, I’ve included a little table of contents below.
In the beginning…
In my early years, foreign languages didn’t interest me. As a Brit, I’d never felt the need to learn one. Everyone, it seemed, spoke English. Wherever I travelled, everyone knew more of my language then I knew of theirs. So I’d just speak English. Easy.
With this kind of attitude, it’s little wonder I didn’t do great at school. French and German were my only options. As a schoolboy I had little interest in either France or Germany, or any other French or German-speaking countries. As such, my interest in the languages never really exceeded a fleeting curiosity.
I dropped French as soon as I was allowed. Oddly, I took German at GCSE, mostly, I think, because there wasn’t anything better.
And because I thought it sounded cool.
I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I came out with a bang average C.
Unsurprisingly there was no place for a foreign language in my A-Levels. I committed those years to ‘proper’ subjects, like History, Geography, Media and… English.
And then I went to uni, where a once fleeting curiosity became something much, much more.
That time in the kitchen
I’m not entirely sure when this happened. It must have been that first or second week. We were all still getting to know each other, and the kitchen was where we all congregated.
For an isolated part of rural Wales, Aberystwyth is a lively melting pot of peoples and cultures, with university students arriving from all over the world.
In that first year, my halls of residence had an unmistakable French vibe.
On my floor we had at least a couple of students who lived in France. And throughout the building there seemed to be loads of French-speakers.
From indifference, to inspiration
Some of them were present that time in the kitchen. I was sat on the worktop, presumably getting hammered on something cheap. (I think Carlsberg was my go-to back then). There must have been a good 8 or 9 of us crammed into that tiny kitchen area, and we were all speaking English.
That was, until a couple of us weren’t.
Tim was originally from South Africa, but lived in France. Since arriving in Aber, I’d only ever heard him speak English. Of course, I knew he could speak French. I’d just never heard him actually speak it.
And then there was Jean. From his name you can probably guess where he’s from. He was French to his core. He lived on the floor below us and had a habit of sneaking onto ours. He was in the kitchen with us that night, and he was speaking with Tim.
With the smoothest transition I heard them switch from perfect English to what sounded like perfect French. I don’t know why, but I found myself fixated on their conversation, even though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. One minute they were chatting with us in English, the next they were having their own private conversation in an entirely different lingo.
Although I had little time for French at school, I found their effortless alternation between it and English fascinating. They could understand us but we couldn’t understand them.
It was like a superpower.
For those of you that have watched Doctor Who, you might have a sense of what I’m getting at. Travelling in the TARDIS gives you the ability to both understand and communicate in any and every language across time and space. Even though this wasn’t as spectacular, it certainly wowed me.
I thought to myself: ‘What I’d give to be able to do that. Any language. Even French or German! I don’t care. Just to be able to speak and understand a language that isn’t English. That would be so awesome.’
It was a massive U-turn. In that moment, something that once bored me gripped me like a clamp. From indifferent to inspired in just a few short exchanges.
And yet, it would never happen. Learning languages, I thought, was too hard. Tim and Jean could do it because they learnt when they were younger. That’s the best time to do it. My time had passed…
Fast forward roughly 10-or-so months. I’d completed my first year of uni and was offered a part-time job for the summer. I’d worked there a couple of years earlier, so I was already familiar with most of my colleagues.
One of them was a Polish woman called Marta. She was definitely one of my favourite colleagues. Unassuming, fun, modest, easy-going… and spoke several languages.
I still carried around this idea that knowing just one additional language was a superpower. But here we had someone who could speak several. Incredible!
Everyone who worked with her believed that her multilingualism alone made her wildly overqualified for what we were doing.
So I did some research. And, sure enough, it did. I quickly discovered a whole bunch of interesting and well-paid jobs that either required or valued knowledge of multiple languages.
Which got me thinking…
Although I still believed that learning another language would be difficult, I started to ask myself how difficult. Is this something I could do in my spare time that could give me an advantage in future job applications?
So I did some more research. Apparently I could, and it would.
And that’s when I discovered Duolingo.
I’m not too sure where or how I found it. Whether I found the website or the app first. Either way, it was free, well-reviewed, looked fun, and could be done anywhere on my phone. Great — bilingualism here I come!
Spanish was my language of choice. As an English speaker it seemed like one of the easier ones to acquire. I didn’t want to do French or German again.
And, if I remember rightly, I was still on a bit of a Breaking Bad hype.
I started off well. I think I missed the odd day here and there, but I still committed a lot of time. As you can see on my Duolingo profile, I racked up a fair bit of XP (I’d say at least 90% of my current total came during this period).
After a month, I remember saying to my dad that I was beginning to think in Spanish. I suspect this was a slight exaggeration. But for sure, whenever we went to the pub together, the only thing on my mind was cerveza.
Sadly, my first fling with Duolingo lasted no more than a couple of months. Come the September, I was back at uni for my second year, which didn’t start particularly well. My dog died the day after getting back, which compounded the doubts I was already having about whether uni was where I really wanted to be. I seriously considered dropping out.
With all this going on, my Spanish naturally fell by the wayside. As such, Duolingo was relegated to the back pages of my iPhone; forgotten, dormant, dead.
Refocussing, travelling and trying again
Now let’s fast forward a year. A lot happened.
I didn’t drop out of uni, started playing football again, smashed my exams, and went travelling around Europe. For the most part, it was a cracking year.
And then I went into my third and final year of uni.
This wasn’t a pleasant period; I still had no solid plan for the future, nor any quality working experience on my CV. Although I ultimately decided to stay-on and complete my master’s, I still needed to bolster my resume. It needed to be more than a couple of degrees and a few random summer jobs.
It’s at this point the second-language idea returned.
My academic interests were confined mostly to Russian history and politics. One of my lecturers, who was also an advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, used to tell me of how the FCO, at that time, lacked a comprehensive understanding of Russia. I’m not sure how accurate this was, but it gave me an idea.
From Russia… with difficulties
If I was going to learn a second language, then it might as well be Russian.
So I swiped back through my iPhone and blew the dust off my Duolingo app.
Almost immediately I was confronted with problems.
The first was that, in late 2015, Duolingo didn’t appear to have an English to Russian course. I know for a fact they were at least working on it because English to Russian was available a few months later. But in that moment, it was nowhere to be seen.
Duolingo did, however, offer English to Ukrainian. I wasn’t willing to pay for some fancy Russian language software, nor was I willing to fork out for tutoring. So I decided to give it a go, on the basis that it was free and (in my head, at least) similar enough to Russian. If nothing else it would at least get me used to the Cyrillic alphabet.
The thing is, though, I didn’t *really* want to learn Ukrainian. And that was the biggest problem of all.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Ukrainian. I just didn’t have a compelling, emotional reason to sit down and study it.
Finding the right motivation
I wanted to learn Russian. Or so I thought.
Because it soon became clear that even that wasn’t a truly compelling ‘want’. It was motivated by the same thing that motivated my Spanish: my concern that my CV wasn’t good enough.
It was going to take more than that to push me to learn another language.
As such, my Ukrainian, like my Spanish, fizzled into nothingness. I think I dabbled with it for a few days before throwing in the towel. You can’t even see my progress on my Duolingo profile anymore.
Back to square one. Again.
Realising the mystery
Despite the setback, I still considered multilingualism to be a superpower, and one I’d love to acquire.
I really felt this when inter-railing across Europe. We went all over the place: Germany, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Holland, all crammed into roughly 3 weeks.
In Germany, I remember meeting a chap called Trent at our Munich hostel. He was American, but I think one of his parents was German. He spoke both English and German beautifully.
He told me of how he’d recently been in a coffee shop and overheard a couple of girls talking about him in German. For some reason I think they presumed he couldn’t understand them. But, of course, he could. I think he really enjoyed the shock on their faces when he told them!
It wasn’t difficult to understand why. I was so envious of him being able to do that.
La Dolce Vita
A couple of days later, we headed off to the Munich Hauptbahnhof and caught a train to Rome.
There was just something about that journey–and Rome itself–that really inspired me. The weather, the culture, the food, the people.
Rome, and Italy in general, just seemed like a really awesome place.
I remember thinking about it after I binned Ukrainian. I must have been looking back through some pictures. I started wondering what it must be like to live in Italy and to be an Italian. To sip an espresso at the locale reading the latest issue of Gazzetta Dello Sport. To actually order food and drink in Italian and understand what I was reading. To tap-in to another way of life.
Wouldn’t that be amazing?
So, during the final months of my undergraduate life, I found myself dipping in and out of the Duolingo Italian lessons, just out of curiosity. There was no academic or vocational reason. Just interest.
I remember really enjoying it. Whenever I needed a break from writing my dissertation, I’d pop onto Duolingo for a quick lesson. I didn’t find it too difficult. It seemed very similar to Spanish, only spicier.
The days went by and I kept coming back. Why?
Because I enjoyed it.
Even so, I had no idea what my casual interest was about to become…
The obsession begins
Tuesday, May 13, 2016.
The day of my last exam.
The day my undergraduate studies ended.
The day my Duolingo (and language learning) obsession began.
I remember it vividly.
Prior to my final exam, I decided that, once it was over, I would really commit to learning Italian. I was going to acquire my superpower, no matter what.
The best way to do this, I concluded, was to do at least a little bit every day.
At the time I’d been watching a lot of those motivational videos on YouTube. Big, orchestral music, accompanied by uplifting movie clips and powerful motivational quotes. I lived off those videos for a while. They got me through those gruelling final weeks of my degree, and gave me some optimism for the future.
They also gave me the belief that, if I wanted something badly enough, I could have it. But I’d have to work for it.
There were so many concepts and quotes that left a lasting impression upon me.
That people are rewarded in public for what they’ve practised for years in private.
That there is nothing as powerful as a changed mind.
That the certainty of death means you have nothing to lose. I could go on.
But there was one quote in particular that really shifted my thinking. And, in the context of language learning, it was an absolute game-changer:
We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.Will Durant
It’s so simple, yet so powerful. What we are is tied to what we consistently do.
George R.R. Martin wasn’t born with the ability to write gripping novels. It’s something he acquired as a result of consistent output over a sustained period of time.
Steve Jobs wasn’t born with the ability to build computers. It’s something he acquired as a result of consistent output over a sustained period of time.
Just as speakers of multiple languages aren’t born with the knowledge of how to speak those languages. It’s something they acquire as a result of consistent output over a sustained period of time.
In which case…
If you want to be a writer, then write.
If you want to be an inventor, then invent.
And if you want to learn a language, then learn.
And do so every single day.
Establishing the habit
So, that’s what I set out to do.
At first it was very deliberate and difficult. Although I was enjoying it, there were still days that I just couldn’t be bothered. I’d get the notification to practice, maybe during a game of FIFA or while I was in the shower, and the urge would be so strong to dismiss it.
“I’ll do it later.”
“It can wait.”
“Missing one day won’t hurt.”
Then I’d remember the quote and my reason for learning. And, just like that, I’d stop what I was doing and I’d complete my practice. (Yes, even in the shower).
With this kind of discipline it didn’t take long before it became a habit. I’d say it took about 3-4 weeks of conscious application before my subconscious began to take over. At that point, the thought of not practising became increasingly less appealing. I genuinely began to fear the consequences of missing a day.
But it wasn’t just the discipline the cemented the routine. This time around I had the most precious thing of all: a compelling reason. I was just so fascinated by Italy.
Every day I’d head over to YouTube and watch videos from well-known polyglots (speakers of multiple languages). Of all of them I probably tuned in to Steve Kaufmann’s videos the most. I didn’t watch for tips on Italian or language hacks or anything like that. Rather it was his language learning philosophy that really engaged me.
For Steve, perfectionism is the bane of language learning. He believes that enjoying the process—which, he argues, is achieved by immersing yourself in the language with interesting, genuine content—is the most important thing.
To me this made perfect sense. It was the interest I had for Italy that got me started, and the enjoyment that kept me coming back.
The journey of a thousand miles
Day by day, my Duolingo streak grew larger. I remember getting to 30 days and feeling really proud of myself. By my standards that was an astonishing achievement. I’d learnt so much and had completed the entire course, only needing to return to practice my ‘weak’ skills.
And I did. Every day. Not just because I enjoyed it and wanted to learn the language. But also because I wanted to maintain my streak; the embodiment of the relentless pursuit of my superpower.
As my streak improved, so too did my Italian. Day by day my vocabulary grew and my grammatical understanding deepened.
After a couple of months I started reading simple texts in Italian.
Not long after I was able to understand, without subtitles, some basic videos on YouTube.
After 6 months I was singing Italian songs in the shower.
After a year I was regularly tweeting in Italian.
And after a year-and-a-half I was attending the Italian Grand Prix speaking Italian to randomers in the hot-dog queue.
It was amazing.
All the while my streak kept building, and building, and building.
And it wasn’t just Italian. After a couple of years I started exploring other languages as well. I finally sunk some time into Russian, completing the Duolingo course and eventually acquiring a basic understanding of the language. I even devoted some time to my old foes French and German, just out of curiosity!
Clearly my Italian obsession had developed into something more. It had become a Duolingo and language-learning obsession. It’s now as natural a daily activity as drinking a glass of water.
I am well-and-truly hooked.
Understanding the obsession
If you’ve made it this far, you might have a few questions. I can think of at least two big ones. The obvious one being:
This is a fair question and one I’ve asked myself on a number of occasions over the years.
After all, the main reason we use Duolingo is, by and large, because we want to learn a language. The game element is nice, but it’s not Duolingo’s main selling point. It’s simply a means to an end.
And it’s true that Duolingo alone can only take us so far in our language learning. I knew this even before embarking on this weird adventure. As far as I’m concerned Duolingo is great for getting started and staying on top of a language. But, by itself, it isn’t enough to become what we might regard as ‘fluent’.
Which is why, since Day 1, I’ve been using other resources alongside Duolingo.
My typical routine over the last few years has involved at least 10 minutes a day on Duolingo, and around 30 minutes to an hour of additional learning elsewhere. This can involve actively studying with grammar books, YouTube videos, other language learning apps (e.g. LingQ, Memrise, HelloTalk etc), or passively learning by listening to music, watching movies and reading news articles.
Given the emphasis on the ‘elsewhere’ there have been a few times that I’ve considered using Duolingo only in the first year of learning a new language.
Coincidentally my final postgraduate exam fell exactly a year after my final undergraduate exam, and so conveniently marked a year of my Duolingo streak. I remember umming and ahing about whether this would be the right time to move on from Duo and focus exclusively on other areas.
The streak endures
Of course, in the end, I powered on with the streak.
Because I wanted to.
Duolingo streaks usually don’t end by conscious decision. We don’t just wake up one morning and decide “Right, today’s the day I’m going to end my Duolingo streak.”
Streaks usually end by accident. By forgetting to show up. By letting other things get in the way.
Without wanting to state the obvious, the fact I didn’t want to stop was enough to keep going.
But it goes even deeper. The streak has practical value as well.
Sure, I enjoy the looks on people’s faces when it comes up in conversation, not to mention the pride it fills me with on a daily basis.
But what really matters goes back to the idea of what it represents. It’s the manifestation of my commitment, effort, and willingness to show up every day, by hook or by crook.
It represents everything I do away from Duolingo, as well. Behind the number are hundreds of hours of study, immersion, practice, passive learning (and singing in the shower!). It’s my daily reminder of just how much I’ve achieved in the last few years.
That’s not to say it’s little more than a glorified streak counter. Duolingo is usually the first place I go to for my day’s language learning. I like how it eases me in and helps me to brush up my vocab and grammar. The leaderboards add a competitive, and thus motivational, edge, and features like Ramp Up help a lot with the speed of my comprehension. It’s also my first port of call whenever I start a new language.
Have I acquired my superpower?
The other big question might be:
Have I acquired my superpower?
To which I would answer:
Yes, I have.
However, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt throughout this process, it’s that questions like this–relating to what we might refer to as ‘fluency’—are really subjective and hotly debated. So it needs to be considered from at least a couple of angles.
If the question is “Have I become perfect in Italian,” or “Can I speak like a native,” or anything to that effect, then the answer would be a simple, unequivocal “No”.
I still make mistakes. I often trip-up. I regularly confuse genders, spellings, grammar rules and verb moods. My comprehension is strong but my production still needs work. When it comes to speaking, I still get a bit of stage fright, less so when writing and typing.
I definitely couldn’t pass for a native.
Case in point. A few a months ago I was in London to renew my passport. It was sorted fairly quickly, so I had a few hours to kill before getting the train home. I decided to take a walk around Westminster.
Like a proper little tourist, I was taking pictures of the Houses of Parliament when I overheard someone speaking Italian. He was rattling off the history of the British political system to a tour group of roughly 20-25 elderly Italian tourists.
I found myself naturally gravitating toward them.
I stood with them for a while, listening to what he had to say. It was really interesting.
Then, as we walked off, one of the group started speaking to me. She was a little old lady, must have been in her early 70’s, from Milan. She was asking me where I was from, why I was walking with them, and what I could tell her about London.
I was caught unawares. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me that they might start speaking to me. I answered as best as I could. Yet I fumbled my words, used a lot of come si dice, and, in my mind, gave a very poor account of what I was capable of. It soon occurred to me that others in the group were gathering around me, wanting to learn more about this mysterious, pasty young Englishman.
Needless to say, I was completely out of my comfort zone.
And yet, I could understand what they were saying. They asked me questions, and I answered. Even though I was convinced my Italian was ineligible, they understood me. In fact, they were very complimentary and appreciated the fact a young Brit such as myself had taken the time to learn their language.
Looking back, it was an extremely rewarding experience.
So, OK. My Italian isn’t perfect. But that was never my goal.
From the outset, my goal was to tap-in to the Italian way of life and to enjoy the process. Have I achieved that? Absolutely.
I’m at a point now where I can be reading a news article on Twitter and not even realise it’s in Italian. I can listen to music and grasp the bulk of what’s being said. I can watch Italian TV shows and movies with Italian subtitles. I interact with people in Italian, and they can interact with me, even if I make mistakes.
This is all I ever wanted. Thus I’ve acquired my superpower. And while I can’t say this is only because of Duolingo, it’s certainly played a massive part.
The journey’s just begun
I’ve come a long way since that time in the kitchen. From fantasy to reality, language learning has become one of the most important parts of my life.
So too has Duolingo. This has been a long journey. Yet, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still at the very beginning.
That’s because I’m firmly of the belief that there’s always something to learn, especially when it comes to languages. I’ve lived in the UK my entire life—nearly 26 years—yet I still can’t say my English is perfect. And it never will be!
Just as I continue to improve in my mother tongue, so too will I work on the ones I’ve acquired. I will continue to build on my Italian. I will continue to bolster my Russian. And, in the years to come, I will continue to add more and more languages to my repertoire.
As such, Duolingo will continue to feature heavily in my day-to-day life.
Which is why I’ve decided to launch this blog.
I’ve no idea what will become of it. I’ve no idea if anyone will benefit from it. I’m not even sure anyone will read it!
Even so, after all this time, I feel a burning need to share my experiences.
So, going forward, I’ll be:
- Writing about all things Duolingo and language learning, sharing experiences, tips, strategies and insights.
- Providing a first-hand look at my day-to-day language learning routine, going into greater detail about how I established the habit, the tools I use and how I fit it all into my busy lifestyle.
- Creating content to help you through the difficult stages of your language learning journey.
- Documenting my own journey as I continue to add to my linguistic portfolio.
So if you’re interested in Duolingo–whether you’re about to get started, tried in the past but lost interest, struggling to stay motivated etc–or language learning in general, then feel free to pop your name and email address in fields below, and I’ll drop you a weekly email with links to our latest articles.
It’s gonna be fun. I hope you can join me!