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.

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