Letter of Recommendation: Duolingo – New York Times

Posted: July 30, 2017 at 11:29 am


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By the time I finally fell asleep that night, I had completed the initial branches in the Dutch course tree. I could read useful phrases like Goedemorgen, hoe gaat het? (Good morning, how are you?) and useless ones like De neushoorn heeft een hoorn en een staart (The rhinoceros has a horn and a tail). The next day, I caught myself wading through the spiteful comments on a gossip blog and stopped to practice Dutch plurals instead.

The app eventually became a type of productive therapy, replacing other time-wasters in my life. Cant sleep? Lets learn more Dutch. In the mood to text an ex? Maybe I should start the Danish course instead. Fighting the urge to tweet that ill-thought-out opinion on current events? Youll feel so much better reviewing Dutch prepositions.

I liked how structured it was, that I could measure my progress in terms of winning points and completing levels and outdoing my friends. I am a frustratingly left-brained person: I take comfort in things that can be quantified. But more than that, though the points gave me a sort of rush similar to getting a stack of Instagram likes, it never felt like an empty thrill. I had finally committed to a self-improvement project, and every time I leveled up in a language, I felt I was one step closer to fluency. I became obsessed.

Six months later, I was at a street festival in Toronto. I walked by a booth where a woman was selling stroopwafels, and I overheard what I hadnt yet heard outside Duolingo: Dutch. I was only a few lessons away from finishing my course. I approached the booth, eager to try out what Id learned. Hoe gaat het? I said, suddenly aware of my heavy Canadian accent warping the words. She just stared straight back at me and said: Excuse me? I quickly shuffled away.

Learning a language to fluency requires discipline, frequent practice, ideally immersion much more than a simple language-learning game can offer. Thats fine, though. Fluency stopped being my goal a while ago, when I realized that trying to master several different foreign languages in the span of a few months would only be another stress-inducing, insurmountable project, exactly the sort of thing that led me to seek distractions in the first place. More than anything, though, Duolingo made me confident in my decision-making I had good taste in bad ways to spend my time.

Any online time-waster offers an escape from the world, often by preying on your worst instincts: envy, pettiness, poor impulse control. But Duolingo offered an escape that made me feel connected to the better parts of the world, and of myself. I may not have become a globe-trotting polyglot, but language learning did trigger a curiosity into other lives lived. My phone hadnt made me a better person, exactly, but at least it didnt make me worse.

It took me about two weeks to make it through the Swedish course earlier this year helped, of course, by never having to speak it out loud. To celebrate, I found a stream of The Devils Eye, the film by Ingmar Bergman. Five minutes in, I realized I couldnt understand a word they were saying. I turned on English subtitles and watched the rest of the movie, phone comfortably in hand.

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Letter of Recommendation: Duolingo - New York Times

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July 30th, 2017 at 11:29 am

Posted in Self-Improvement