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Next Gen Favorites: the half-finished Duolingo course

I am tormented by the specter of Duo the Owl

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Illustration by Ari Liloan for The Verge

I heard the notification whistle and reached for my phone instinctively. I was met with a bright screen and an ominous message.

“Hey Jamal, we’ve missed you!”

Instead of coming from a friend or concerned neighbor, the message came from language-learning app Duolingo. Once again, I had abandoned a Spanish course, and Duo the Owl had popped up in my notifications to remind me just how frequently I failed to complete a course on the app. It became a kind of routine: leaving a course half-finished and then watching the anxiety pile up with each notification.

I was drawn to Duolingo as a way to improve my Spanish, which had never quite clicked during college. The warp speed of university life often left me with little to no time on my hands, and languages had never been my strong suit. In my courses, I was forced to adapt to the timelines of a semester, and even when I did perform up to par, it felt like it was more about grades than actual knowledge. Duolingo seemed like a good way to break out of that trap and get comfortable with the language itself.

Part of my anxiety comes from the vulnerability I feel when testing out a new language. There’s always a period of confusion when starting something new, but I’m usually able to fake my way through it, pretending to have the skills for long enough to actually pick them up. Language isn’t like that. You can’t fake a transitive verb. When you don’t know something — when I don’t know something — the error is inescapable. My friends were often available to help me out, but the threat of embarrassment made me too anxious to take them up on it. When I studied alone, I spent hours perfecting one word or syllable and having imaginary conversations that never bore witness because of my trepidation. The fear of failing stopped me from trying in the first place.

Without realizing it, I had turned Duolingo from a hobby into a place of hyper-evaluation. If it took me longer than a week to get comfortable with a grammar or vocabulary lesson, I started to see it as impossible. I had internalized the belief that learning was meant to come innately. If I wasn’t picking up Spanish immediately, I figured my brain just wasn’t built to learn it.

You can’t fake a transitive verb

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who falls into this trap. Duolingo doesn’t release completion rates for its courses, but a report last year said American users ranked 68th out of all countries in the number of lessons completed. A separate informal study put the overall completion rate for Spanish at less than 0.01 percent. Far more people are getting stuck halfway through than are finishing lessons — so maybe my half-finished lessons weren’t quite as embarrassing as I thought.

Naturally, Duolingo thinks a lot about user retention. I spoke with Cindy Blanco, a senior language scientist at Duolingo, and she stressed that the courses aren’t intended to be one-size-fits-all. People come to Duolingo with different goals, and they may end up ditching the course once they’ve reached the level they want.

“If you think, ‘Well, I want to go to Portugal and feel comfortable ordering in a restaurant,’ how much of the course do I need to work on so I could feel good about that experience?” she told me. “For other people it’s like, ‘Well, I really love K-pop and I want to understand the culture or read more about the bands in their own language.’” 

That distinction extends to Duo the Owl, who had tormented me over my unfinished Spanish lessons. Blanco told me that the owl is designed to send different messages depending on culture and geography. In that sense, the app is focused on delivering a user experience that feels unique, even when it’s trying to rope a dormant user back in.

Since my conversation with Cindy, I’ve begun to dig back into my Spanish lessons. But I’ve also started to think about my unfinished courses in a different way. Learning isn’t always linear. It may take a while before I get comfortable with Spanish. In fact, it may never happen at all. Once I had let go of that insistence on perfection, I started to feel much better about dipping into the occasional Spanish lesson — and much less shaken when I see an unexpected notification from a cartoon owl.

Jamal Burns is a recent graduate of Duke University. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, he studied history with a concentration in women and sexuality studies.