We've all been there. You're lying in bed browsing Instagram, when all of a sudden a notification pokes its way into view from the top of your screen.
"Hi! It's Duo."
"Time for your daily Italian lesson. Take 5 minutes to now to complete it."
You're conflicted. On one hand, it's already 11 PM. You should probably sleep. On the other hand, you have a nearly week-long Duolingo streak going. You'd hate to break it now.
Nevertheless, 11 PM is far too late to being doing chores, so you decide to just start over tomorrow and power down your phone.
There's no hiding it: learning is... well, boring.
That is, most of it the time. It's why no kid on the planet is ever excited to race home to go do their homework. It's also why apps like Duolingo pester you into learning so much that they literally became an internet meme. It's therefore no surprise that user engagement and conversion is often treated as a north star in online learning.
Three questions effectively drive every major product decision at every big ed-tech company:
"How can we attract learners?"
"How do we retain learners?"
"How do we convince our learners to give us their money?"
Engagement is what drives features like Duolingo streaks and in-app achievements. I have a theory that most people who tap on Duolingo's notifications are "slaves to the Streak", so to speak, and those who ignore aren't finding enough value in what Duolingo has to offer.
I myself fall into the second camp of learners, unfortunately, and if you're reading this article, I'm guessing there's a chance that you do too.
So is everyone just lazy?
Well... yes. Sort of. I like to think of it as justified laziness.
It's always a guilty feeling pushing away that Duolingo notification. You usually end up thinking something like "what was I thinking... I'm way too lazy to learn Japanese. Plus, I don't have the time."
People make time for the things that are worth their time. Otherwise, why dump hours of your life into anything? If you're too lazy to do a Duolingo lesson, it's usually because the reward isn't worth the time you're investing into it.
I myself love languages. Over the years, I've tried many times to learn different languages through Duolingo – Indonesian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to name a few. I gave up every single time, and my reason was very similar to that of every high school student who has ever been forced to take a foreign language credit:
"When will I EVER use this?"
It's true. I grew up in a super white suburb, went to a (fairly) white college, and worked in an industry where effectively everyone is a perfect English speaker. So why need a second language at all? I mean, I'd love to watch Narcos without English subs, or order in Chinese on my visits into Chinatown, but diving head-first from Duolingo into a real-world situation like that isn't possible... for most people, at least. It's like wanting to be a fantastic singer without necessarily doing it for a living... something cool you can show off once in awhile.
Sadly, unlike singing, staying proficient in a language is much, much harder. Depending on the language, there can be dozens of components to attaining fluency... pronunciation, grammar, spelling, listening, reading, slang, honorifics, colloquialisms, recognizing accents, knowing when and how to conjugate verbs... the list goes on. With singing, you can practice alone every night to avoid getting rusty, maybe even belt out a few of your favorite cover songs.
With languages, staying proficient is not nearly as fun.
Which brings us back to Duolingo. To avoid getting rusty, apps like Duolingo think it's essential for you to engage in constant review. To a degree, it's true. Relentlessly drilling you on vocabulary will ensure you remember it, at least in the short term.
However, as previously mentioned, I think we can both agree that studying like that is a drag, and more importantly, doesn't address the question:
"When will I EVER USE THIS?!?"
As much as I hate to say it... this question is very much up to you to answer. The reason anyone becomes good at anything is by doing it. Not by studying the theory of it, but by actually doing it. Jimi Hendrix didn't become famous by studying music theory while never actually touching a guitar. So the real reason Duolingo isn't sticking is not because you're dumb, or because you're lazy, but because you don't have the very real outlet you need to apply what you've learned.
You may have already tried apps like HelloTalk or Tandem, or maybe you've booked a few 1:1 lessons with a native speaker... if you have, good for you for taking your learning seriously! If it's working for you, fantastic. Keep it up.
If you've tried all tried this and are still wanting more or things haven't exactly worked out, here's what can help:
Keep a journal written in the language you're learning. Not only does writing about your own life help you think in your target language, but it forces you to take the knowledge you've learned and string together complete thoughts and ideas relevant to you and your life (and not some bogus sentence like "The crocodile ate my blue sweater"). Most importantly, don't let your vocabulary level dictate your writing. If you work retail and are writing about a story of how a customer wanted to return a printer, use it as a chance to learn how to say "customer", "to return", and "printer". Eventually, the words relevant to your life will stick out and you'll commit them to long-term memory.
Build your education around your interests. If you're an avid gamer, switch up the in-app language of the game to drive new vocabulary (game play might take a bit longer, but hey... that's the cost of learning!). Or, if you're a musician like me, find foreign songs to sing. Learn every vocabulary word. Dissect the meaning of the song. If you play sports, watch foreign broadcasts of games. Learn the terms of the game in your target language and try to see how much of the commentary you can understand. If you like books and are unbelievably driven... try reading a foreign book, looking up every word you don't know.
Set your voice assistants to use the language you're learning. It seems minor, and may be aggravating at first, but testing your pronunciation by seeing if a voice assistant like Google Home or Alexa can understand you goes a long way. After all, voice assistants exist to serve native speakers from all around the world, including you in your native language. There's a good chance if an AI can understand you, a real person would too. Plus, most of the questions you ask voice assistants – what the weather is like, play some music, how to convert grams to ounces – uses a pretty topical and handy vocabulary.
Use Linguistic. When it comes to actually talking to people online, not only can it be intimidating, it can actually be pretty hard to feel like you're keeping track of what you're learning. Linguistic not only makes it easy to connect with other speakers for free, but it also helps you to learn and retain vocabulary words through conversations, track every correction you receive from other speakers, and track your proficiency level. It makes it super easy to apply what you've learned through Duolingo, and can be downloaded here for iOS. If you don't have an iOS device, don't let that stop you! HelloTalk, iTalki, and Tandem are just a few other language exchange apps to help you apply what you've learned. Conversing with others and receiving their corrections is essential in retaining a language long-term.
Overall, Duolingo helps you learn some things, but ultimately it's going to be going out there and actually speaking the language that is going to make or break your language learning journey, so the only thing left to do is get out there... and do it :)