The Subversive Success of Duolingo

busy japanese street in daytime with large cartoon owl looking down

The Subversive Success of Duolingo

The language learning app is at the vanguard of diversity and inclusion. But that’s not all.

There are 400 languages spoken on my home soil.

Know how many can I speak?

One. Just one.

I shake my head in shame. After a year in Japan, I came back to Australia not being able to speak Japanese well enough.

It’s always made me feel, well, deficient.

But now there is another one brewing on the back burner. The fluency is starting to bubble, getting all primed for the pumping.

That’s because I’m on Duolingo. Like it or not, I’m one of those fan people.

What is Duolingo?

Never heard of it?

Duolingo is a free app that teaches languages. There are over 38 so far.  It’s also really fun because it is gamified in a way that even old cranky-pants players like me enjoy.

Duolingo states that it boasts more students than the US school system.

Duolingo is used by the richest man in the world and many Hollywood stars, and at the same time by public schools students in developing countries. 
duolingo info

Duolingo is a free app with an optional ad-free subscription that has a few add-ons. Around 2% of users are subscribers.

Who started it?

Luis von Ahn is a Guatemalan computer science professor and entrepreneur. He also co-created CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA.

Severin Hacker (what a name!) is a Swiss computer science graduate who also worked for Google.

Together, they created Duolingo as a language learning platform that is free, accessible, and fun for everyone in 2011.

How big is Duolingo?

Duolingo is massive. It’s been the number one education app on app stores in the past. It had celebrity funding from Ashton Kutcher’s investment arm and Tim Ferriss.

The language learning app boasts over 500 million registered users. That is more than there are followers of Buddhism.

Almost 40 million (double the population of Australia) actively use it every month.

Does it work?

Duolingo adheres to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) to set goals for different language proficiency levels in the design of courses. They cover increasingly complex language needs.

Diversity is an advantage

Women have been saying for years that sexism reduces the talent pool. We are smart. So are migrants, refugees, people of colour, and different sexuality.

This is what Duolingo says about its People.

We’re proud to say that Duolingo was founded by two immigrants, and our 350+ employees come from more than 30 countries. More than half of our employees are women or people of color, and women are represented at all levels of company leadership. 

The recipe for success

Combines Kumon-style pedagogy with gamification to make users rewarded with little dopamine hits.

Users are made sticky with the simple but effective Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy of not wanting to go back to Day Zero.

Video game elements

Users can earn badges. The daily consecutive count is called a Streak, Streak Freeze allows you to miss a day and freeze the streak.

If you miss a day (without a streak freeze), you start back at zero.

Community learning

While the app no longer learns from its users as translators (it did initially) there is a Community.

You can see the discussion on changes, characters, tricky grammar points, and cultural aspects. You can also follow friends or other users and send ‘high fives’ to others.

I regularly send High Fives to Father Jack Hackett (whose avatar looks like the drunken priest in the TV show Father Ted of the 1990s).

Sebastian in Naples who was my arch-nemesis in the Diamond League is now my friend.

Subversive elements

The subversive element, however, is what I think truly sets Duolingo apart. There is playfulness and curiosity in the learning exercises. Not surprising, given that both inclusiveness and curiosity are brand personality attributes in the online style guide.

For example, as a non-dairy drinker, I recently learned “I don’t drink cow’s milk because I am not a baby cow.” Useful!

The surprise gender-bender play with dress codes was explained by way of Japanese gender-neutral honorifics (san can be both male and female).

Therefore Tanaka-San wore a blue dress at the party can be accurately translated as Mr Tanaka wore a blue dress to the party.

After this eye-opener, I checked the forums to see the reaction.

“It keeps learners on their toes” is what someone in the app’s community forum said. It was almost universally positive.

Aside from vegetarians (Vikram), other characters are queer and gay.

Lily is an emo with a deadpan voice.

A fortyish female avatar with an undercut who wears a men’s suit is looking for love.

Bea is searching for her girlfriend in an airplane (she doesn’t have one yet).

Many phrases are intimately suggestive, “He unbuttoned his shirt”

Professor Tanaka is by turns male and female, which are both correct.

Are the gender-bending, non-binaries really necessary? Well, yes. Representation is critical for inclusiveness. And the brand stands for inclusiveness.

Language choices differ by age

Sixty percent of language learners are under 30. The languages of choice differ for generations.

Older people are more likely to learn Italian or Spanish. The Gen Zers enjoy learning Korean, and Japanese.

Great user experience

You set the daily goal (5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 15 minutes) and a series of questions in a minicourse is served to you.

After finishing each day, you are showered with a series of animated gems, confetti rains down, treasure chests are opened, and plasticky-looking hearts are scored. (After nearly four years, I’m still not sure what they do), and crowns are earned.

The user/player can move up and down the levels from Amber, Amethyst, Emerald, Obsidian to Diamond, playing competitive games against the clock and other users on the scoreboard around the world.

All of these games add repetition practice for the language learner.

My proudest moment was coming number one in the world in Diamond League in 2020. I wondered if there would be animated fireworks and a dopamine hit. Just the dopamine hit, I’m afraid.

But at the end of the year, the achievement was recognized with a heart-warming personal report card on December 31. Honestly, I felt ‘embraced’.

animated flame with numbers 1444

A gift to stop cognitive decline

One thing I will say is that despite a stressful job, five minutes of Duolingo is a mindful antidote. It’s my time.

My Japanese has never been better. I’m a long way from being fluent. I might never be. And that’s okay. It’s the process.

It’s relaxing in a way that will shut off everything else. Except for a smile on my lips.

Shiroi burousu-o doko nimo nai.

“My white blouse is nowhere to be seen”.

They say to prevent cognitive decline, learn a language.

Then look out, world.

Hopefully, I’ll soon be able to say I speak two languages.

Then I’ll see you at a maid cafe in Akihabara. I’ll be doing cosplay with Sakura-san.