[Last updated: December 9, 2021]
As much as I love Duolingo I just can’t get along with those pesky little hearts. They’re just too punishing and demotivating.
And I know many users feel the same — my article on how to beat the heart system has gone on to become one of my most popular.
So why, then, does the heart system exist? Duolingo have their reasons (which we’ll get to momentarily) but I’m more convinced than ever that the hearts are not fit for purpose.
It’s time for a different approach.
The purpose of hearts
I always thought that the hearts were designed to get you to subscribe to Duolingo Plus. After all, the premium membership gives you unlimited hearts, and therefore allows you to make as many mistakes as you want. By frustrating free users, perhaps they’ll bite the bullet and part with their hard-earned cash?
Well, the guys at Duolingo say differently. They claim the hearts are actually designed to help you — by discouraging binging.
Long story short: their studies show that advancing too quickly through your lesson tree will have a negative effect on your learning.
The hearts, they claim, encourage users to “take a breather and review previous lessons before moving forward.”
In principle, this is actually something I agree with. It’s important to review old material to ensure that you don’t forget it. And I suppose making too many mistakes could indicate that you haven’t sufficiently absorbed content from previous lessons.
What hearts actually do
The thing is, the hearts do a lot more than discourage binging. What they mainly discourage is making mistakes — one of the most essential parts of learning anything, but especially a language.
It goes without saying that this is problematic. If progress depends upon making mistakes — seeing what doesn’t work as much as what does — then how can the heart system be helpful?
Look, I’m aware Duolingo claim to be sitting on research that justifies the heart system, and of course it’s important to review past material. But the heart system in its current form creates a climate of fear and ultimately stands in the way of progress.
Consequently, many just coast in the easy skills, maxing them out to 5 crowns (or 6 if you factor in the legendary levels) because it’s the only way they can avoid making mistakes. Factor in the unhealthy obsession many have with their league and the amount of XP they earn, and progress in their target language grinds to a shuddering halt.
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The heart system doesn’t work
But put the inherent issues of the heart system aside for one moment. Does it even achieve its intended purpose? Duolingo seem to think so. But I’m not so sure it does.
We’ve already discussed the glaring issue. By penalising mistakes, the hearts prevent progress, and this surely defeats the whole point of using Duolingo in the first place. The only way to learn a language is to make mistakes — regularly and without punishment.
But there are at least two other important ways in which the heart system falls short.
The first relates to XP. Duolingo encourages you to rack up as much XP as possible and rewards you in the form of league progression and gems.
The problem is, the most effective way of doing this isn’t to make progress in your target language. Quite the opposite in fact. The best way to earn XP is to do the easy lessons over and over again. That way you can pretty much guarantee a full combo bonus every lesson and complete them super quickly.
This begs the question: if users are already rewarded for mindlessly rehashing old material, then what’s the point in the heart system?
But perhaps the biggest reason it isn’t fit for purpose is that, irrespective of the current state of the XP system, the heart system simply isn’t necessary. If you find a lesson too difficult, you basically have a couple of choices: either go back to some of the previous lessons of your own accord; or try again until you master the material.
This is the natural process. It doesn’t need to be controlled.
And as a Plus member, I can speak from experience. Unlimited hearts allow me to go at my own pace. If I get a question wrong, I come back and try it again at the end of the lesson. If I’m really stuck, I can look at the discussion page for the question on the forum, or review the skill’s tips section.
Eventually, I’ll get my head around it. That’s how you learn. It seems bizarre that Plus members are afforded this freedom but free members aren’t.
Duolingo should do this instead
In my opinion there are essentially two solutions: either scrap it, or replace it.
I think the first approach would be best, pretty much for all of the reasons stated above. Users will naturally gravitate towards what they’re comfortable with. They will learn how they want to learn.
If anything I’d say they need more encouragement to press on and make mistakes. It’s far too easy at the moment to be sucked into thinking that your league is more important than actually learning your target language. Rather than punishing mistakes, Duolingo should instead focus on how they can encourage progress.
Users need to be given the freedom to learn at the own pace and in their own way. If they want to make lots of mistakes, then let them. Language learning is a personal experience. Stop punishing something that is so vital to the learning process.
Alternatively, Duolingo could replace the heart system with something better. Something that gives control back to the user and provides them with room to grow, while also ensuring they’re absorbing the material they encounter.
The solution is simple and already ingrained in the Duolingo framework: reminders, notifications and recommendations. The owl is already *very* good at this. A simple reality check every few lessons would ensure users aren’t on auto-pilot. If the app thinks a user is moving too quickly, then it can recommend an alternative path.
The important thing is to stop controlling how users learn their languages. Gently lead, and let them decide for themselves.
What Duolingo would need to do first
These suggestions are all well and good. As a humble user, it’s easy for me to say that Duolingo need to get rid of the heart system. But for Duolingo, actually making this a reality is a bit more complicated.
The reason being is that unlimited hearts is one of the biggest features of Duolingo Plus. If you remove the heart system, then Plus loses one of its biggest selling points. And for Duolingo, from a purely business perspective, this would be far from ideal.
Sure, there’s more to Plus than just unlimited hearts. Although it’s the main reason I subscribe, I’m also a big fan of the new features they’re rolling out. I love Pronunciation Review. The Mastery Quiz is a decent way of measuring where you’re at in your target language. And Mistake Practice is great for… you know… practicing your mistakes.
These features aren’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but they are undeniably useful and add a lot to the learning experience.
Unfortunately, without unlimited hearts, I’m not sure they’re enough to entice users away from the free membership. Not at the current price point anyway.
Which is why, if Duolingo are to move away from the heart system, they will need to do one, or both, of the following: reduce the price of Plus and/or replace unlimited hearts with features of equal appeal.
Will this happen? I’ve absolutely no idea. But I strongly suspect that the future of the heart system depends on it.
Have your say!
Anyway, that’s what I think of the heart system and how Duolingo should replace it. I think they’ll ditch the hearts eventually, I’ve just no idea when!
But what do you think? Would you replace the heart system with something better or simply scrap it altogether?
As always, let me know in the comments!