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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Duolingo: The Boogieman of Language Apps

The green owl goes rogue – this article discusses Duolingo’s (almost extreme) methods to coerce us into practicing our language skills.


We’ve all been there. Struggling to communicate in a foreign country and frantically scrambling through Google Translate. Desperate, we seek out the friendly green owl where we quickly shove new vocabularies and grammar points in our brains for a few minutes every day. However, what’s bound to happen still happens: We give up, though the bird (literally) never gives up. This is the reality of Duolingo’s users, whose lazy (or lack of) efforts to learn new languages are constantly and sometimes violently vexed by the passive-aggressive diligent app. From its gentle reminders to creepy low-key “threats,” Duolingo has become the king of language memes across all Internet platforms. Nonetheless, one must wonder whether the app’s eccentric persuasive technique really works. And why?

Lesson 1: The Guilt Trip
Since Duolingo aims to cater notifications to each and every user, the bird becomes the secret spy that lives right inside your phone. With its push notifications, the expressive bird awakens the disappointment of not completing your goals. As Mashable describes best, “the actual notifications aren’t even that threatening — it’s the personal disappointment that follows.” Why disappointed? After all, you are responsible for your own knowledge. But this is not how Duolingo sees it. By conveying a wide variety of expressions – even “animated tears in your inbox,” the owl steadily yearns for our attachment. We not only let ourselves down but also disappoint the poor little bird that is always rooting for our linguistic success. By igniting the innermost primal emotions within each learner, Duolingo attempts to subtly persuade us or, in other words, sneakily manipulates us to continue our language journeys through the app’s convenient daily exercises. 

Lesson 2: Become a Meme
However, it would be extremely inaccurate to assume Duolingo as the victim who fails its job to teach us new languages. Its less-than-subtle militaristic and spooky approaches have long become Internet memes. Needless to say, Duolingo is the meme-ist bird on the worldwide web. From threatening its users for forgetting to practice Spanish for two days to begging us to learn Italian or Duolingo will “eat a poison loaf of bread,” the app does not hold back. Some learners even (worryingly) joke about their safety as the bird can “hunt” them down and hurt them and their family. The sheer creativity from Duo’s traumatized “hostage” has made the app more hysterical than ever. 

Duo is indeed a player. A player of our hearts.

Even the developers at the multi-million dollar app jumped on the bandwagon. In March 2019, Duolingo’s tweet made headlines by featuring the beloved bird standing at the doorstep at night with a warm yet mysterious stare with the message “Coming Soon.” The company took a step further by releasing ironically funny ad footage on April 1 of the “Duolingo Push,” where a real-life human-size Duolingo irks its learners to practice. The website also promotes the different learning “packages” you can choose, ranging from “encouraging” to “passive-aggressive” to the “most popular” premium option, the “disappointed” Duo. This is followed by the “testimonials” of petrified users that have been followed 24/7 by the tireless owl. Duo is indeed a player. A player of our hearts.

 Lesson 3: Playing (with our emotions)
However, from a linguistic perspective, it is legitimate to question whether the relentless efforts of Duolingo (and yourself) pay off. According to The New York Times, these language apps are believed to yield the most benefits for learning “basic conversational phrases that are useful when you’re traveling.” However, despite the cutting-edge and somewhat extreme technology, language enthusiasts stand by the consensus of how learning new languages are all about understanding and immersing oneself in the culture. Although these language apps offer flashcards and interactive online practice, a language “isn’t a singular monolith, but rather a complex interconnected system of components that build a way to communicate.” Additionally, despite Duolingo’s mechanism of training our memory through repetition, their largely nonsensical expressions make this function somewhat obsolete. A simple example: “De neushoorn drinkt sap,” or “the rhinoceros is drinking juice.” Yes, Duo, I will definitely incorporate this colloquial and not-at-all-meaningless sentence into my daily life. 

Nonetheless, we all need to remind ourselves that Duolingo is a for-profit app that is designed to extend your motivation and attention to hastily absorb new languages. Through the lingot award system, each user is given the incentive to advance to higher levels and feed into our sense of self-satisfaction and achievement. While this approach is not entirely ineffective, our experiences can sometimes fall into the trap of “gamification,” where winning becomes our priority and not retaining new knowledge. You might learn the words, but you do not have the opportunity to appreciate the language. We can spend the entire day making fun of Duolingo’s unorthodox methods. However, the expectations of obtaining new languages still take strenuous personal efforts from our part, and we cannot rely solely on the bird’s pestering. At the end of the day, it is no magic, and Duolingo is no lifesaver.

Cover: Duolingo via Twitter

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