Duolingo as an Opportunity for Virtue

I don’t get any money from Duolingo. (Honestly, I don’t actually even care if you use Duolingo or one of the many other free language learning apps.)

But I’m going to convince you to start using Duolingo.

I’ve been using Duolingo continuously since January 2019 — so, almost two years, as of this writing. And I couldn’t recommend it more.

I have only a rough recollection of the day I decided to start using Duolingo again. I had tried starting it many times in the past, and seemed unable to stay with it for more than a month or two. In fact, that seemed like a very good reason not even to try. Certainly, I believed that such would be my fate once again.

But what I remember is that I thought back to the person I was when I first tried it. This was back when Duolingo was just beginning, in 2011. I had heard an interview with the company’s founder on the radio, and decided to give it a try.

As I thought back to all the time that had passed since then, all the places I’d gone and paths I’d travelled, I wondered how different I might be now, if I had managed to keep Duolingo as a habit through all those years.

Some people say that Duolingo isn’t the best or most efficient way to learn a language, and I have no doubt they’re right. But ten minutes a day of studying a language with any methodology, no matter how flawed, is going to teach you a huge amount about that language, if you can stick with it long enough.

What if I had become, perhaps not fluent, but at least conversant, in French, Italian, Spanish, German? What friendships might that have opened up to me? What job opportunities, career trajectories, educational settings?

Most importantly, what great books would have been available to me for reading in the original language?

I thought back over all those years with an increasing dismay. I could not think of a single day when I wouldn’t have had five or ten minutes to spare for Duolingo, ten minutes which I had instead carelessly spent on frivolities.

The whole time, Duolingo was free, and the whole time I had access to it. It was only a tap of a button away.

And the only thing that kept me from benefiting from it was that I lacked the virtue to be able to force myself through the tiniest bit of boredom or discouragement.

But I didn’t waste too long regretting my failures. As I reflected, it became rapidly apparent to me that it would be twice as shameful if, after this realization, I allowed another half a decade to pass in the same way.

So I downloaded the app, did a lesson, put it away, and didn’t think of it again until the next day.

Now, to be forthright, I haven’t actually learned any languages. If you set me down in Moscow or Beijing I’d probably seem virtually every bit as ignorant as any English tourist. I’ve been in no hurry, and I’ve given myself the freedom to jump from language to language whenever I like, so long as I keep in the habit of doing a daily lesson.

Still, when I study a language with Duolingo, I do get better at it. Most recently I’ve been doing German, only for a few months, but I’ve learned quite a bit, made some good progress, and when I look at the remaining lessons in the course, I know that if I stuck with German for the next couple years, I could gain a pretty strong grasp of the language.

Now, maybe it’s true, as all the whiners online are constantly insisting, that no matter how long you study a language on Duolingo, it will never make you perfectly fluent. Maybe so.

I say: who cares? I wasn’t getting perfectly fluent in any languages anyway! It’s not like Duolingo is interrupting all the worthwhile language work I’d otherwise be engaged in. And now, since I’ve been using Duolingo every day instead of wasting those ten minutes every day, I’m that much closer to fluency than I would have been otherwise. Thus, if I ever were in a position where I suddenly needed to become completely fluent in German or one of my other languages … won’t I then be glad for all the time I’ve already put into studying?

I don’t know whether I will stick with German continuously for the next couple years. I might take a year away from German to return to Russian or Mandarin, or even to try a new language. But even if that happens, I know that any time I want to, I can return to German, quickly relearn whatever I will have forgotten, and then pick up from where I leave off.

The best part about it is that all of this is now absolutely automatic for me. I do a lesson every morning, as early as I reasonably can, and it takes a few minutes, and then I don’t have to think about it again for the day.

There was one day when Duo told me I hadn’t completed my lesson the previous day even when I was sure I had. I don’t know if my mind is deceiving itself, or if there was some sort of technical glitch with my phone syncing the completed lesson. What I can say is that starting over from day one after weeks of building up a streak was the hardest day in Duolingo history, but thank goodness, I did it.

I’ve kept this habit through times of financial distress, through the labour and birth and first days of life of my son, through sickness and travel, through losing my job with Covid.

And in this way it has also become, not only an opportunity for me to practice virtue, but a way to remind myself of the attainability of virtue, and the power of it. There are days when it felt like nothing was as it should be, and everything was coming apart.

On those days, you would not believe what a comfort and a strength it gave me to remember that I could continue to take these small steps toward learning a language, not because anyone told me I had to, not because I was afraid, but just because it is a good thing to do, and because I am strong enough to do it.

What about you? Do you have the minuscule reserve of virtue needed to build this easy and enjoyable habit? If so, I think the burden is on you to explain why you haven’t yet embraced it.

I’ve learned some tips for getting the most out of your lessons and I’d be happy to share. Leave a comment if you have any questions, and please don’t forget to add me as a friend on Duolingo once you get going!

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