Duolingo does a great job capturing the novel delight of learning a new language. You hop on, take a short quiz, and a little green owl waves at you and hops towards a trophy. You can add friends, join group challenges, and there’s a weekly ranking system to compete with users all over the world where you have a chance to move up a league, stay stagnant, or potentially get demoted to a lower league.

Duolingo takes a “spaced repetition” approach at language learning. I like how the app serves you vocabulary in isolation as well as in different sentence contexts with different AI voices, all aimed to reinforce the words before it leaves your brain. The progress meters, streaks, and competitive nature of the app are all a part of the gamification system designed to keep you coming back. But… there’s a lot of them.

Here’s a short list of all the progress meters inside the Duolingo you’re responsible for filling up.

  • Daily streak progress
  • Course progress
  • Lesson progress
  • Daily missions for monthly reward
  • Monthy achievement progress
  • Weekly league ranking progress
  • Weekly friend challenge progress
  • Collecting gems
  • Match Madness progress
  • +9 other achievement categories

Slowly you realize the truth about Duolingo; it’s not a language learning platform, it’s an engagement platform. And through that engagement you might pick up some language skills. Duolingo does little in explaining how rudimentary concepts like verbs or participles work and instead lets you piece it together solely from repetition and context clues. Repetition in learning is important but without ever addressing the fundamentals of a language Duolingo reveals it’s prioritizing something else over language mechanics.

Duolingo succeeds when you log in, see an ad after every lesson, and feel like you’re making progress towards a goal so that you will log in the next day and repeat the cycle. The dopamine hits and then a surprise (!) Double XP potion shows up at the beginning of the week. The Double XP boosts your score and you secure a spot on the leaderboard. This spurs more notifications and sessions for your competitors, which serves more ads. Now the pressure’s on to avoid losing your spot on the leaderboard. Another potion shows up to get you over the mid-week slump and to stir the coals of the engagement metrics again. You can of course pay to not see ads and unlock faster dopamine hits.

And then there’s the social pressure from the cartoon bird to keep your streak alive. At first it’s motivating and cute but then turns a bit ominous and manipulative, saved only by its sense of humor.

Duo the green owl mastcot with threatening red background saying “Don’t Let it Break!”

Despite it all the engagement theatrics, Duolingo is fun. I wish I had Duolingo when I was initially learning Japanese in college (or Spanish in high school). I think along with textbook learning it would have cemented a lot of concepts for me. It’s fun to get a daily dose of something new and see the scores go up.

At one point all four members of my family were on Duolingo learning four different languages simultaneously in the same room. That was chaotic, fun, and made me genuinely excited to see my family enjoy learning another language which something I enjoy. When you’d hear a the notable ding from across the house, you’d feel a Pavlovian urge to open the app on your phone and continue learning. One-by-one in reverse age order, however, we all came to the same conclusion that the repetition and the notifications were tiresome. After using Duolingo for 100 days in a row, I uninstalled the app.

I’ve enjoyed noodling on Japanese, Piano, Spanish, German, Korean, Esperanto, and Klingon… and perhaps I will again one day, but for now it’s become another to-do during the day. The lessons were too repetitive and slow for me, a person who wants to flex a part of my existing memory and not learn from scratch. I can only hear about green tea so many times. Your experience might be different, but if I could find a “Practice Only” version of Duolingo without the engagement machine attached and a little less repetition, I think that would be the right fit for me.