New Year 2021. We wished that the events of 2020 were behind us, and yet we could feel the dark clouds of COVID-19 gathering around our heads. It was at this time, seeing which way the wind was blowing that I started my adventure with Duolingo. This is a name that fills equal numbers of people with dread and excitement as by welcoming Duo, the green owl into your life, you are taking on another responsibility. Both like and unlike a child, constantly present and demanding snacks, Duo the owl demands your time. Practice! Take 5 minutes to learn! And my personal favourite: “you’re using your time wisely.” The reason this last is so amusing to me is because of the language I have chosen to learn: Klingon.
All the languages on Duolingo are taught in a similar way and according to research about how people learn. But the secret of its success is The Streak. It seems that people are obsessed with a streak – look at the Wordle Streak phenomenon if you don’t believe me. And yet, as on day 440 of my streak I reflect on what the green owl has taught me, it is not all about a useless alien language. I believe that this language-learning app has created a keystone habit in my life. The discipline Duo has forced upon me is quietly spreading into other areas of my life. I have set my Duolingo to the absolute minimum to do every day. Some days I can barely think straight, but I still do my minimum, often revising the first lessons. Other days, when I haven’t been disturbed in the night by my children, I take on a new lesson. But I do it every day. It has shown me how even by doing the bare minimum every day, changes can occur. It has shown me that it is more important to keep going than to make massive progress quickly. And most importantly it has shown me that any goal is attainable if you chip away at it every day. This is something I knew in my head, but had never experienced with such clarity. Duo, the annoying, pestering green owl, has brought hope.
Hope was what our family desperately needed in that hopeless January as, in the UK, we were locked down for the third time. Suddenly, we were back to home schooling. Duo was there for us. The fact that Duolingo is an app already makes learning a language an easy sell to children. For my daughter loving her secondary school French, her choice was easy. My other daughter decided on Spanish. That is how we spent our lockdown, I would find “tu bebes agua” on scraps of paper around the house as my eight year old came to terms with new vocabulary, and the guttural Klingon voices rang out as I practiced.
Learning a language requires practice and commitment and while The Streak helps that, life does get in the way. I don’t want to suck the joy out of language learning so, sadly, the Spanish has fallen by the wayside, the French is dipped in and out of according to daily feeling. On the other hand, my husband has joined our Duolingo family. Despite my increasingly desperate requests, he declined to learn Klingon and is now fifty days into learning Japanese. Our house is full of Japanese talk about umbrellas and hats, and Klingon talk about phasers, aliens and tricorders. I am thankful for the perspective that language-learning has given our family, whether or not I ever visit Qo’noS.