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How Duolingo Gets You Hooked

Written by Emily de Boer

In the last decade, there has been an explosion of online resources for learning a language. As linguists, we’re all intimately familiar with resources that claim to be able to teach you your 7th language from scratch and from the comfort of your own phone. But no language learning product has been as prolific as Duolingo, due to the sheer amount of language courses they offer, the user-friendly interface, and of course, the owl who shows up to murder your family for forgetting to do your Japanese lessons.

One of the things that makes Duolingo so addictive is something called ‘gamification’, which is when game elements are added into learning, for example getting rewards for finishing a lesson, a daily streak, or leagues where you compete against other users. These features can be motivating for a lot of people, but for some people, they’re so addictive that for them, using Duolingo stops being about learning a new language, and instead becomes about the rewards you get from learning.

I myself used Duolingo for years: I started out learning Italian in preparation for a trip to Italy, and I branched out into learning Spanish and Danish, but after a while me using Duolingo was no longer about actually learning the language, but about holding on to my years-long streak or my coveted position in the diamond league. I kept up with using Duolingo every day, for exactly 900 days, when I had to force myself to stop because I wasn’t having fun anymore. The phenomenon I experienced is called gamification misuse, and in this blog, I’d like to talk about what happens when gamification spoils your learning.

Gamification misuse can take a lot of different forms: some people just stop actively learning and instead complete lessons only for points, getting addicted or developing a gambling mindset, whereas other people start cheating during lessons. These habits can have negative effects on many different aspects of someone’s life. People who have suffered from gamification misuse have admitted to disrupting regular routines, even sleeping less, just to complete more lessons. This of course can also have severe effects on your mental health: when you spend so much time on something and it still isn’t enough, it can send someone down a bad mental path very quickly. On a language learning level, they also tend to lose both confidence and interest in the language because of the repetition involved in bingeing Duolingo, and also because they found they weren’t able to complete lessons without cheating anymore, as they had cheated to get to the level they were at. Another effect of gamification misuse is the effect that cheating has on other Duolingo users, who aren’t able to win because of other people cheating to win the leagues, which might also encourage them to start cheating as well. It’s a vicious cycle, and nobody is winning except Duolingo itself.

But how do people fall into this cycle of gamification misuse in the first place? There are a lot of reasons this could happen, split into two categories: active and passive reasons. For active reasons, some people might be really competitive and see a league as an outlet for that, and others see Duolingo as a game where completing a level would give the same satisfaction as a level of Angry Birds. One interviewee even said that the reason they started hacking to farm XP was as a form of revenge on Duolingo itself for policy decisions the user didn’t like.

The passive reasons for gamification misuse tend to be more psychological. Gamification is intended to compel people to complete lessons in order to get that achievement or win the league, but this can turn into people feeling the compulsion to get all the rewards without absorbing any of the information. As I mentioned, some people also start cheating because that’s what other people are doing too. In my opinion, though, the reason that most people fall into the cycle is that Duolingo wants to get people addicted to their product. After all, the more time people spend on their app, the more ads people see, the more money they make.

The murderous Duolingo owl became a meme because of the excessive amount of notifications Duolingo sends its users to get them on the app, and Duolingo later leaned into that meme, making it an official part of their social media branding, which contributes to the feeling people have that they need to do their lessons. A lot of their features also subtly push people into paying for a premium subscription.

A lot of gamification elements and Duolingo can be explained through both positive and negative gamification: the streaks are meant to be positive because they encourage you to keep engaged by learning a little bit every day and the leagues are a way to have light-hearted competition with other users, but both of these features have left countless users feeling like they have to do something every day in order to maintain that number. By consistently making people feel like their progress isn’t good enough and they need to be spending more time on the app, every single day, Duolingo manages to profit off its users' less-than-stellar experiences.

Have you ever experienced gamification misuse through Duolingo or a different language learning app? Please let us know in the comments!

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