Nagged by an owl

A friend recently recommended Duolingo. It's billed as free online language study, but really it's Farmville for foreign language enthusiasts.

OMG, Duo, do you see this trophy? It means you can cut me some slack

With foreign language study, the gap between putting in the effort and getting the reward is discouragingly long; like exercise, it's worth it, but it sure doesn't feel that way. Duolingo's points and levels and ta-da! sounds fill in that gap with short-term rewards when you complete lessons (and when you review them, which, as we shall see, is evem more important). Those rewards might be meaningless, but your brain is more than happy to accept meaningless rewards. Essentially, you're fooling yourself into working.

Duolingo's gamification isn't just perfunctory. As Kahneman discusses in his book on cognitive illusions , a loss hurts more than the equivalent gain feels good. Duolingo exploits this by letting you bet on whether you'll hit your daily point target every day for a week. If you break your streak, you don't just miss out on the opportunity to get points; you lose the in-game "lingots" that you bet – making it a bigger incentive than just offering an extra five lingots.

But what, exactly, do you learn from Duolingo?

I completed the Esperanto skill tree and poked around the German one. Duolingo divides its lessons by topic ("Nature", "Medicine") and grammar (past tense, prepositions). Each lesson includes a short page about grammar and usage, but you'll spend almost all your time translating sentences into and out of the language you're learning and typing recorded sentences.

The recordings are full-speed and sound natural – if there's one consistent complaint I have with language courses, it's re ... cor ... dings that are so slow that no amount of listening will let you understand normal speech. That's not a problem here (though the German occasionally sounds staticky, or more like a speech generator than a real person.) What's more, Duolingo's transcription tests force you to pay attention to endings and "function words" (like "for" or "with") rather than relying on a few "content words" (like "eat" and "meal") to guess at the meaning of the sentence (and turning into one of those language students who thinks their "Me Tarzan"-level French deserves at least a high B because people in France grasped the gist of it). In the long run, using Duolingo will provide you with plenty of drills on endings, different forms of pronouns, and common words, too.

But …

But Duolingo's sentences don't have any context, and aren't things you're likely to say or hear. "It's good to be the king" and "I'm the king of the world" are funny, but "I'm buying the seventh lemon"? How many goofy sentences do you need to repeat when you still haven't seen - for example - how polite expressions fit into the flow of a larger conversation? People used to complain about high school foreign language classes that taught you how to say "the pen of my aunt" but nothing you'd ever use; Duolingo is aunt's pens from one end to the other.

If you're using Duolingo as a supplement for a larger curriculum, I suppose that doesn't matter. But the Esperanto course has another problem – the example sentences often aren't typical of what you'd expect from an Esperantist.

For example, Duolingo translates the English word "that" as "tiu", and "this" as "ĉi tiu". But, as Esperanto grammarian David K. Jordan notes, "In general, ĉi is omitted except as a matter of emphasis, regardless whether in English we would say 'this' or 'that'." Since the Duolingo Esperanto course is in beta, it's possible that they'll add the other correct translations later - but the real problem is that by using Duolingo you're exposing yourself to those less-probable forms over and over again. You're training yourself in habits you're better off without.

Finally, Duolingo demands that you review material at a rate so high it's positively burdensome. In Anki, the flashcard program I like, getting a card right means you'll see it less frequently. Get a word right today and you'll see it tomorrow, then (if you get it right again) a few days later. The more you get it right, the longer the intervals become. A typical lesson will consist of brand-new and fairly-new words, words you've gotten wrong recently, and some familiar words you haven't seen for a while.

Duolingo, in contrast, seems to constantly expire your skills – you have to do dozens of reviews a day (or at least, two weeks in, I have to) to keep your skill meters at gold. Intellectually, I know those gold ratings are meaningless – but your brain will accept a meaningless punishment as readily as a meaningless reward. Remember how I said that a loss hurts more than a gain feels good? Well, rationally or not, it feels like Duolingo is taking away what I've earned, and every time I log in I face the Sisyphean task of pushing all those levels back up.

I'd planned to do Duolingo lessons in a language I'd never studied, to see if I got more out of learning a new language than reviewing one I had a background in - but by the time I'd refreshed my Esperanto skills back to gold, I kept finding that I'd used all the time I'd allotted for Duolingo and then some. It's language practice, and that's good for you, but there seems to be a diminishing marginal return. An hour of Duolingo doesn't do you twice as much good as thirty minutes.

At this point my impression is that Duolingo has some interesting ideas with the gamification - but the rapid skill decay works against it. The variety of sentences within the lessons is nice, too - larger than you'd get from a typical phrasebook or even a self-teaching book. (They aren't necessarily useful sentences, but you'll see all the different forms of a verb enough to get them solidly into your skull.) If they'd add some lessons where you answer questions instead of translating and transcribing them, I think they'd tremendously increase their value as a language learning tool - or at least as a language review tool.

Perhaps someday Duolingo will be less like Farmville, with its daily round of virtual chores, and more like the Sims, which gave you all kinds of rewards for keeping meters full.

And maybe I'll feel differently when I've climbed the Irish skill tree.

Written on January 22, 2016