Tips for Duolingo

I love Duolingo, and I want to do some posts in the next while with reflections on it. In today’s, I offer some advice about how to get the most out of it.

I’ve made lots of mistakes in how I approached Duolingo over the last few years, and it’s taken me time to adjust my thinking and correct my unhelpful patterns. Hopefully my experience can be helpful for others earlier on the journey.

Here we go. Some practical wisdom.

(Note: some of these tips will be obsolete in mere years, or perhaps even months, given how often Duolingo introduces changes to how its app is set up. Still, I think that overall these should be helpful guidelines.)

Make it easy. An easy daily language-learning habit will still accomplish incredible things for a person, given enough time. It can’t be so easy that we’re standing still, but as long as there’s progress, however incremental, the habit is working. So make the baseline easy. You can challenge yourself to make the practice harder any day you want to, but the norm should be that the habit can be checked off for the day with minimal pain and inconvenience. That’s important because:

The streak is everything. Just keep practicing. It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst day of your life and all you can manage is the easiest review lesson you can find. Just do it. Just keep doing it. Once you stop you’re not learning, but as long as you keep going, you always have at least the possibility of making progress. Just keep the streak going.

The streak isn’t everything. When you have a streak going, don’t let anything jeopardize it. If the streak does get broken though (whether because of forgetfulness or laziness or life circumstances), remind yourself that what you really care about is learning a language, not building a streak. Start a new streak immediately, from zero. Restarting like that will be the toughest thing to do in the moment, but after a few days you won’t be worried about your lost streak anymore.

Keep moving forward. I once saw someone online claiming to have kept a streak on Duolingo for multiple years without learning a single thing. This person claimed to be unable to read anything in the new language with comprehension, or to have even the simplest conversation in it. And it’s true — it is possible to get points by doing the same basic tasks over and over again, without making any progress, and a streak can be kept up indefinitely in this way. To some degree, in fact, Duolingo is set up to reward such behaviour, because you can get the same amount of points with far less effort by doing what you’ve already learned rather than making the effort of learning something new. And maybe on a rare occasion, that’s what we need to do, just to maintain our streak with the least possible effort because of bigger events happening in our lives preventing us from giving the time and attention we want to give. Generally, though, I hope it’s clear that if we want to learn a language, we need to keep moving forward, learning new skills, getting closer to repeating and completing the tree.

Feel free to switch between languages. Now, I wouldn’t recommend switching between two dozen languages, but if there are two or three top languages that seem most interesting, then jump back and forth at will. Sometimes a change of pace is needed, to give us a break, or to challenge us more, or to rekindle our dying interest. If moving to another language for a time is what can accomplish that, then by all means, do it!

It might be easier to add languages. This will sound weird, but stay with me. If you want to add volume to your language learning (when you’re ready!), I find it’s easier to practice one lesson each in two languages per day, than it is to do two lessons in a single language per day. I know, it’s really strange, and it sounds like the opposite should be true. But in my experience, it’s the way it works. Give it a try.

Move through a language very slowly, or very quickly. If you want to get every skill to level five before moving on to the next one, that’s great. I’ve done it, and it’s a fine strategy. If you’re in no hurry and you want to be thorough, it’s probably the way to go. But it’s generally not the way I have gone. I like to move fast, rocket toward a checkpoint, and then afterwards review the material more slowly and thoroughly. This seems to be a good way to stay motivated and to see rapid progress. This latter approach, though, leads me to my last recommendation:

Aim for the checkpoints. This one is especially true for people who are not patiently maxing out each and every skill before moving on to the next. It’s the insight that took me longest to grasp. Once a checkpoint is reached, then it is possible to practice all the skills since the last checkpoint in a leisurely way. If you leave a language and try a new one for a time and then want to go back to the first one, if you stopped short of a checkpoint then there’s no easy way to go back and review what you’ve learned before moving on to further lessons.

Biblical Faith, Classical Thought, and the Offspring of Their Mixing

I have a love for the biblical (Judeo-Christian) texts and also for classical (Greco-Roman) literature, and I sometimes feel a desire to explain why I think this pair of traditions is genuinely important. The other day, though, it occurred to me that whether or not a person appreciates the texts themselves, these two historic starting points have, in combination, certainly shaped our history and our entire world, in a profound way.

It seems to me that it is possible to treat all these things as results of the tension that exists between the heritage of biblical faith and that of classical civilization:

  • The medieval world
  • The Renaissance
  • The Protestant Reformations
  • Modern philosophy
  • The French Revolution and its successors
  • The Industrial Revolution
  • Capitalism
  • Modern liberal representative democracies
  • Socialism and the welfare state
  • Communism (as inspired by Marx and Engels)
  • And perhaps postmodern philosophy as well, as inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger, though I am much less knowledgeable about that chapter of philosophical history, so this point is only an intuition on my part.

Although I didn’t include it on the list, I think a case could even be made that we should include late pagan classical civilization here as well, insofar as it was influenced by or responding to Jewish or Christian thought. How far back that goes, is hard to say. Certainly after Constantine the classical pagan world was responding vigorously to Christian claims. But maybe as far back as Aristotle, who apparently knew of and was impressed by the beliefs of a Jewish man, or even earlier, we could begin to draw connections.

Indeed, there are many other things I could have added to the list — Islam, for instance, Rabbinic Judaism, the Church Fathers, the New Testament, the canon of the Hebrew Bible even. The list goes on.

To say that the biblical and/or classical traditions are not praiseworthy or admirable, is the right of any poor soul. To say that they are negligible, forgettable, unimportant, minor — is simply impossible.

Are Bodyweight Exercises Worth Doing?

I’ve recently been getting excited about the possibilities of bodyweight exercise.

Here’s the thing. I think it’s just kind of weird to start exercising with free weights without getting good at bodyweight exercises. That doesn’t mean we can’t do both, but to me, of the two the one that’s essential and shouldn’t be rejected is bodyweight exercise.

I know some people could be annoyed about that opinion, and I get it. Several years ago when I began getting in shape for the first time, I did some research and I myself began going to a gym and lifting free weights. I got pretty strong, and built up a decent amount of muscle. I could lift amounts of weight that made my friends surprised and impressed. That was cool.

And after all that time and effort, I still was not particularly good at push-ups, or lunges, or pull-ups.

That was not as cool.

True enough, in the long run you can’t get quite as strong with bodyweight exercises as you can with free weights, especially in some muscle groups.

Still, it’s possible to get pretty significantly strong with bodyweight exercise, and there is less danger. Think about it: I was squatting and deadlifting hundreds of pounds of weight, and yet I was incompetent when it came to doing proper unweighted lunges. That’s just weird! Isn’t it? And it’s not very practical.

Much better to build a solid foundation of bodyweight fitness, and then to progress to free weights and machines once there’s a need.

And that’s only if there ever is a need, of course. Most of us don’t (and shouldn’t) aspire to be able to deadlift a truck or to have biceps the size of bowling balls. We just want to be healthy, to be more than strong enough for our everyday activities, to look good at the beach. We each need to find that line for ourselves, and while for some it may require going to the gym to use weights, many of us will perhaps be surprised to discover that all we need is a bit of floor space in our living room and maybe a pull-up bar.

Let’s forget Covid, and the way it lately has caused gyms to be closed for months on end, and made bodyweight exercise the only real option for many people who want to keep exercising.

Even without that, bodyweight exercise is just way more convenient than using weights. It can be done anywhere, anytime. You don’t need to make a trip to the gym, or bring your workout clothes, or carve out an hour of your day. If necessary, a bodyweight workout can be broken up and scattered into the breaks in a day.

Anyone can get started, anytime, anywhere. All that’s needed is to find time to do a bit of research into it, and then launch right in.

It’s a habit, I’ve been finding, that offers big rewards for small efforts.

I’d Doubt My Own Existence Before Doubting God

There’s a particular reading of Descartes, somewhat fanciful, that I’ve arrived at, which has powerfully influenced my thinking. I don’t know if I’m the first person to come up with it; probably not. But I also have no idea to whom I could point in support of it.

It’s a reading of Descartes that is actually informed and inspired by a tired old refutation. Of course the one I have in mind is this: “But you’re assuming you know what the ‘I’ is! Don’t you realize that selfhood is incredibly complex and contentious and uncertain?” I don’t actually give much credit to this old takedown. I think there are plenty of resources within the plain sense of Descartes’s own argument for making short work of it.

However, with that said, I think it’s also possible to read Descartes in a different light, and very profitably, if we imagine that the smug old objection has indeed managed to land a meaningful blow against Descartes’s argumentation. “Goodness me,” says Descartes, “you’re quite right. Even the self cannot be indubitable. The thinking thing, the doubting thing, is itself not enough of a thing to be affirmed or even to merit being denied.” Let’s imagine, then, that the next step of Descartes argument as we have it in the Meditations, is a concession to this admission.

Whatever thing or things might be doing the doubting, we cannot say or know. What we refer to by words like “self” or “I” is a many-sided, ever-changing thing. It is many things, and it is never the same things. But at the very least, it is not nothing.

We cannot affirm the immediate thingness of the self, perhaps. But we must admit that self, even if it is only an illusion, still in its illusory being must signify or represent or indicate that there is something, and not nothing, although we can’t necessarily say what that something is.

But then how does that help us? Those fleeting, insubstantial somethings that we’ve indirectly discovered can be set aside without a second thought, for all the good they will do us. They aren’t nothing, but they almost might as well be.

And yet, if we can know without doubt that there is something contingent, conditioned, multiple and changing, then in that same instant and with the very same confidence, we can know that there is an unconditioned, absolute, necessary, unitary, changeless origin, standing just out of view. The former cannot be thought meaningfully apart from the latter, and if the former is known then the latter is equally known. There can be no changeable without the changeless, no contingent without the necessary, no multiplicity without a first unity. The former by its nature is dependent on the latter, cannot exist without the latter, cannot precede the latter, cannot even be thought or defined or explained without the latter. It is not a syllogism; this is a realm of thought that is above and prior to the segmented, orderly work of logic and mathematics, as Descartes has already made very clear. This is something much closer to mysticism. It is the original, immediate, self-grounding knowledge that overflows itself and breathes meaning and comprehensibility and connection into everything else that is.

This knowledge is the basis of all knowledge. The senses can be doubted, the material world, even the reasoning of the mind. None of them are able to stand on their own, to sustain themselves as their own ground. There is something more primal than any of these things. It is a sort of knowledge that is never entirely absent from our thinking, but is only very rarely noticed for itself. Perhaps it is a thing that can never be believed by a person if it is not yet intuited, and yet, once intuited, could hardly be again denied.

I don’t think there’s anything seriously problematic in the portion of Descartes’s argument that begins with doubt and leads up to the point of confidence in God’s existence. However, to imagine that there might be a problem with it is worthwhile, in that it gives a window into another beautiful and deep truth of human existence and human thought.

Ever since I realized the possibility of this second reading, I have said to friends on occasion, without any hint of irony, that I would sooner doubt my own existence than I could doubt God. I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

Slowly But ASAP

Living well is simply the art of pointing oneself in the right direction as soon as possible, and then beginning to move, no matter how slowly.

As long as we’re going in the right direction it’s okay to be creeping along at a snail’s pace. The important thing is just to get moving in the right direction as soon as possible. But that’s harder than it might sound.

It’s amazing how easy it is to waste years of one’s life moving the wrong direction, focused on the wrong things, or perhaps not really moving in any direction at all. I’m sure that most of us have looked back and found wasted years, even if they were wasted with the best of intentions. Far better to spend those years moving slowly in the right direction than to spend them standing still or going the wrong way.

It is most urgent, then, to discover who we want to be. Perhaps it is better to say that what we need is to discover what is the best life for a human to live, so that we can then pursue that life (insofar as it is possible according to our own particular capacities).

It is sensible to say that we should begin by equipping ourselves for the weighty task that stands before us. We need to train our body and mind and habits to carry us along the difficult path ahead.

What if the teenage years and twenties were spent not only preparing for a career but also studying languages, and pursuing health and strength and fitness, and learning about important moments of world history?

A person’s twenties and thirties could then be spent reading philosophy and literature and political rhetoric and such summaries of the natural sciences as would be useful for the project of understanding.

Think how that would set a person up to spend the rest of their life searching for, and living out, the best life for a human person?

A strong and healthy body, fuelled with ideal nutrition and formed by invigorating exercise, would support a resilient brain and a long life with fewer health challenges.

A growing collection of languages learned would open up wisdom and insight from all over the world and all through history.

Familiarity with the great minds and events of world history enables us to meet and test whatever ideas and proposals arise for our consideration in a way that is mature and sophisticated.

Perhaps we’re behind on the programme I’ve outlined. I certainly am.

It’s okay. As long as we’re moving in the right direction now, even if it can only be at a slow pace, we should take comfort in that fact.

Nietzsche Not As Metaphysical But Political Philosopher

Nietzsche is either a strikingly poor metaphysician, or a brilliant political philosopher. I prefer to believe the latter is the truth, although I seem to be in a bit of a minority from what I can tell.

Not that most people who know of Nietzsche will say explicitly that he’s a bad metaphysician. They only say, in my (admittedly limited) experience, that he comes to metaphysical conclusions that might be true, on the basis of arguments that tell us nothing about metaphysics. And since he’s witty and entertaining and stylish and famous, that must presumably be okay.

What greater insult could a philosopher receive than to be praised condescendingly as a supremely entertaining fallacy-factory?

We could easily summarize a typically Nietzschean sort of thought in this way: Weak people want to escape this world, and so any theory that posits a world beyond this one is an invention born of weakness, and thus, no world exists beyond our own. Here is an example of how people want to read Nietzsche. He’s saying something about ultimate reality, on the basis of an argument that proves nothing about ultimate reality itself.

And at times, surely, that is how he sounds. Yet, it is important to keep in mind the Nietzschean way of writing philosophy. He is no Kant, no Aquinas, no Aristotle. Those philosophers are themselves often ambiguous, difficult, diversely interpreted, but without a doubt they are making some effort to be clear and consistent and comprehensible. Nietzsche is more playful than they, far more literary in his philosophical writing.

Nietzsche can be difficult to pin down. When is he being ironic? When is he being hyperbolic? When is he trying to invoke an idea or a mood indirectly through his statements? We are left with considerable latitude in how to interpret him.

I am certain he knew he would be read as a mere gigantic impish fallacy, and he chose to be happy with that. His writing reveals itself differently to different readers.

If we choose to read him sympathetically, to assume at every point that he actually knew how to recognize a fallacious argument and was trying to say something not fallacious, even if a piece of writing seems easily read as a fallacy, then quickly a pattern becomes clear.

Nietzsche is talking about us.

He’s not talking so much about the universe or ultimate reality or things as they really are.

He speaks about human nature.

He speaks about human thought as it stands in its many streams in the modern world.

He speaks about life and choice and perception and happiness. He speaks insightfully about those things. That, then, is how I’ll choose to hear him.

Effects of Being Your Best

Virtue is contagious. The harder we work to better ourselves, the more likely it is that the people around us will begin taking steps toward their own improvement.

Sometimes the spreading of virtue happens rapidly, especially if it is taking place in the context of a new friendship. Most often, you’re going to have to prove yourself.

Anyone can start a fad diet. Anyone can get a gym membership or buy a pair of running shoes. Learning a few words of a foreign language isn’t hard.

What’s hard is sticking with it. Will we give up after a month? After ten months? Do we think we’ll still be at it in two years? What about five years from now?

If we can consistently keep up a positive new habit for half a decade, we will see very significant changes in our lives. That could mean fluency in a new language, or mastery of a new skill or profession. It could be the difference between doing wall push-ups and doing planche pushups. Whatever it is, it’s enough to be something noticeable and impressive.

And the people around us will be watching. I was at one time morbidly obese, and whenever someone I knew started out on a diet, I myself would start silently rooting for them to fail. Their failure would mean my vindication, according to some warped logic.

But it only took seeing one person succeed, one person that I knew personally, for my mindset to change, and for me to commit to losing the weight.

It took years for the pounds to disappear (and even still the process isn’t finished), but it took mere minutes for me to decide to change my life and myself for the better, whatever it would take.

One person’s virtue can affect the lives of many, and especially of those people who are closest to us, whom we care about the most.

The Wildness of Divinity

There are some intelligent theists who are very confident that hell, if such a word means anything at all, will most certainly be unoccupied at the end of all things, and into eternity.

I do not deny absolutely such a possibility, though I believe that according to the texts and teachings of the Christian faith at least, it is highly improbable that “hell will be empty.”

However, one thing that I will never allow, nor even understand, is the utter certainty with which such people assert their conclusion.

Now, some people are allergic to any sort of certainties, and that’s not me. I don’t think that certainty as such is always mistaken. I only ask what is the basis for certainty in any given case.

The proponents of universal salvation are certain of their teaching because they think it is an inescapable consequence of God’s goodness. If God is good, they think, and of course God is good, then there is no possible world in which God allows some people to suffer forever.

Such an argument diminishes God. It replaces God with an idol, with an imagining of our own creation. It may be well-intended — I’m sure that it is. It may be able to reinterpret every line of Scripture and every Christian doctrine into alignment with its desired conclusion.

But its root is the desire for the taming of God. It tries to contain the incomprehensible, and so it has no standing.

God is good, truly. God is goodness itself. But God is not goodness as we have ever known goodness. God is not trapped by our understanding of what is good. The good as we know it is derived from and bounded by who God is, certainly, but the inverse is by no means true.

The goodness of God must not be tamed. It is a wild thing, unreachable. The goodness that we know is only the smallest part of God, is, by comparison, nothing at all.

If we think we have understood God, then we have turned away from God, toward a creaturely fiction to which we have given the name of God.

God as God is unknowable, overflowing all our categories, bursting out of our human theories and conjectures and speculations.

We can love this God who is beyond our minds, and we can fear this God, indeed, but we cannot intellectually capture divinity in any meaningful formula, in any combination of words or intuitions or images.

If we say we have determined what God must be like, how God must act, we have committed the ultimate arrogance. O humanity, remember what you are. Know yourself.

Maybe God’s plan includes an emptiness of hell, an abolition of hell. But we cannot expect it, cannot demand it, cannot just assert it. We will discover what the goodness of God means, with wonder and fear and love and adoration at every step of the way. That is all we can hope for.

I say this as someone who has thought through, and read, and discussed, carefully and seriously the arguments for universal salvation. I do not dismiss them lightly. But I’ve concluded that I cannot see a way ever to come to see things from their viewpoint, as long as I seek to let God be God.

A or B … or Both?

For some reason, our brains are easily tricked into accepting what I believe are called false disjunctions. Such and such group of people believes that A is true, and this other group believes that B is true. Which group is correct?

When I pose it in those terms, hopefully it is obvious that, and obvious why, this approach makes no sense whatsoever.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other! There is a very great probability that the answer is “both, actually.”

Should we strive for physical health or intellectual capacity? Should we believe that all people are equal in dignity or that people are unequal in ability? Should we want the government to cut wasteful spending or to do what it can to improve the conditions of its populace? Should we be at peace with the world’s imperfections or try to make the world a better place? Should we honour solitude and independence or life in community? Should we be kind to others or do what’s best for ourselves?

Both! Always and forever both! How can these questions even exist for a second without being laughed into obscurity?

Arguing about which is more important is also nothing more than a distraction. “Well sure, of course you need to have both, but when it comes right down to it and you have to pick one or the other, which will you choose?” The thing is, we can choose both. Maybe we can’t choose both at the same instant or with the same dollar, but if we say that both are important and that we have to find a way to address them both, then in all but the rarest of circumstances, that is precisely what is able to happen.

These sorts of questions don’t really have anything to do with what we do or should believe about reality. In my experience, they have much more to do with which groups of people we want to align ourselves with. It also often corresponds to the kind of life that is most appealing to us (which is to say, the vices we treasure and will find a way to justify to ourselves).

What happens when we start to answer that type of question with the sensible response, then? What happens when we insist on “both”?

For one thing, we find friends in places we would never before have thought to look, and that opens our eyes to see many things more clearly.

For another, our vices will begin to appear to us, seen for what they are, left with nowhere to hide. And that’s the first step to becoming a better person, which is the most important thing of all.