Riding the Duolingo train

There is a green bird looking for you and it wants you to remember those verbs.

I really like the idea of learning a language. The glamour of turning, mid-conversation, into a poet and recite verbatim some classy line from a foreign film is exactly the vibe my struggling author persona needs right now.

At the same time, there is something more than simply aesthetics when it comes to learning a language. It requires discipline, repetition, persistence and a willingness to let go and embrace failure. Duolingo is a language-learning app that is far from glamorous, but it gets that second job f**** done.

Duolingo works like this: It is an app with a green bird (pictures of the little bastard below) that sends you constant reminders to complete your daily “language learning goal”. Aproximately 15 minutes a day is all it takes, even in the hardest of the Duolingo settings, to satisfy the bird, who will congratulate you every time you complete an exercise. It does not care how many times you said “tu quiere” instead of “quieres” (I’m learning Spanish). It is just happy you did the exercise.

Duolingo bird: Saying “good job” even if you wrote your name wrong. Be aware: if you don’t get your homework done he will come for you.

Duolingo consists of a “tree” of subjects – each branch a topic, or complexification of a topic, with levels ranging from one to five. Every level has four lessons that take aproximately three minutes each to complete.

A collage of listening exercises, flashcards, and multiple choice questions introduce you, at every turn, to new words, phrases, and sentences. If you click on a word, even in the exercise’s outline, you can discover its translation immediately. Duolingo is not interested in you getting it right, memorizing the new expressions right away. The goal of the thing is making you do it every day, repeting terms until you get it, through the gamification of language learning, that, in Spanish, you should write “el agua” instead of “la agua”.

I have always considered language learning this train through cultures and unexplored worlds, a passport to understand “the other” – whoever that may be – in all its complexity. Having dedicated one hour a day to Duolingo for the past two months, I can say that, maybe, language learning can be all that enterprise. But the app also demonstrates to me, as consistently as its reminders, that there is also beauty in repetition and conditioning, persistence and getting used to.

I can’t wait to explore Spanish podcasts and literature, from Gabriel García Márquez to Cervantes, but, until I’m ready to take those travels, – Duolingo sure helps.

“Quieres hablar español?
“Sí. Y traga el agua, por favor.”

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