duolingo bird meme

The Lessons Duolingo Actually Taught Me

This post is not going to be a critique or review of Duolingo. However, there are some elements that you can take away from to get an idea about how Duolingo works. The primary goal of this post is to inspire you to look at your learning system and determine if it is useful and efficient.

In my Russian studies with Duolingo, I made it to the Diamond leaderboard with a 150-day streak.  Once I made that goal (a goal I did not intend to make, much less achieve), I threw it all away by breaking the streak!  Duolingo is a source of funny memes such as, “You broke your streak, I break your knees.”

150 day streak in the Diamond league

Building Daily Habits

Duolingo wants you to practice and learn every day, so you develop the habit of learning. Consistent and disciplined work is one of the keys to acquiring a new language. The habit building works on any learning system where you spend less energy getting yourself going when you do not want to study.  The habit moves you into autopilot while you painlessly learn.  When I graduated with my MBA, I immediately felt lost.  The routine and process of learning were so ingrained in me that I did not know what to do with myself.  I went back and got an MIS degree.  By then, I was tired and needed a break.  However, it took 99 credit hours of work to get to that place.

The Dark Side of Gamification

Duolingo’s leaderboard is strictly voluntary and not required for learning. Duolingo states people can use the leaderboards to challenge friends through peer pressure to learn. When it comes to controlling behavior, two manners occur:

  • Hyper competitive people will gain unnecessary thousands of experience points to ensure they get in the top 10 to move higher up the leaderboard. They can go through multiple lessons in a single session. Although you gain the experience, how well do you transfer short term memories into long term memories? From my experience, the extra experience points did not translate to better learning outcomes.  Also, others who study multiple languages gain additional experience points by going through those lessons.  Psychology researchers know through studies that the brain can only handle so much learning before it slows down progress.  Kim Ukura told her tale of reading so much her brain shut down at BookRiot.     Psychology researcher Miller found that people on average can hold onto 7 (+/- 2) items in short term memory and more if they are chained. 
  • If you rehash the previous lessons to solidify them, it slows down the progress, and the repetition increases boredom. How many times do you need to translate “Bears eat everything” when you mastered the phrase a long time ago?  Building vocabulary is a better use of time than that!

What Did I Do Different?

I have studied French and Latin while in high school and Spanish at the collegiate level, where all of these classes predated the Internet. My learning experiences came from textbooks. I re-evaluated my strategy for acquiring Russian and went through a different service that integrated listening and speaking in a textbook-like format.

In today’s time, we can access anything we want to learn.  Youtube has been a massive player in providing access to languages that people do not commonly speak locally, and the Internet is a game-changer for learners everywhere. 

The Most Important Lessons

Evaluate your progress against your expectations

When you have reasonable expectations of performance, use that as a baseline to measure your progress.  Mix this with SMART goals, and you can further measure your performance.  For example, you can set a daily goal of learning ten new words a day. However, if your expectations are not realistic, you will set yourself up for a demotivating failure.

Decide what is not working and change

When learning anything new, sometimes you have to try many programs to find the one that works for you. The key is to know when the system does not return the results you expected to prevent learning inefficiencies.  In my learning, I looked at Pimsleur first.  It was slowest for vocabulary development, but the best for listening and perfecting pronunciation.  Once I got a taste for the language, I understood what I needed from learning material to maximize my learning potential.


My Russian learning experience is constantly evolving and ripe for disruption. What have you discovered about your learning experiences? Comment below, I would love to hear from you! Thank you for reading!

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