One Thousand Days of Duolingo

A few weeks ago, I reached a streak of 1000 days of Duolingo. After almost three years of consistently studying Mandarin every day (except for the stray streak freezes), I then quit with no intention of continuing.

Here’s my story with Duolingo.

Before the Streak

Despite some Cantonese in my family, 3 years of French in high school, and 1.5 years of Mandarin in college, I am monolingual.

Since college, I have dabbled in learning a second language. According to Duolingo, I joined back in January 2014 to learn German. In practice, I never committed enough to immersion to get closer to fluency. Learning a language is hard, and I haven’t needed it. My interest was never sustained enough to make actual progress.

My first good stab happened in Europe in late 2019. Before going to Paris, I began a crash refresher course in French. I picked out specific useful vocabulary, like bakery items, and I memorized survival phrases, like where to find the bathroom . However, most of my practice came through about a month of Duolingo, where I made a surprising amount of progress.

I was far from fluent, but I did manage some halting conversations with cab drivers and servers with assistance from Google Translate. That was the first time I had ever spoken a second language usefully.

The Streak Begins

When we got back from Europe, I still had Duolingo on my mind, but I no longer had a specific reason to study French. Somewhere in there, my streak lapsed in the middle of a week. Then, I decided to pick up Mandarin again.

I immediately noticed that the Mandarin content on Duolingo wasn’t as rich as the French. Whereas the French lessons had dialogues and such, Mandarin was focused just vocabulary and translating sentences. It does combine reading, listening, and speaking with a mix of Chinese characters, pinyin, and English.

On my first pass, I completed the first course of lessons in each topic. I noticed the difference in my vocabulary retention between words I had learned in college versus new words, but I kept making progress. Somewhere along there, I hit two major milestones. First, I managed to get to the highest league (diamond). Second, I studied every one of the roughly 50-ish topics.

image borrowed from the Duolingo blog

Then things got harder.

A few years ago, Duolingo added much more content onto the app. Specifically, each topic wasn’t just completing roughly four or five lessons: they also added several more tiers to each lesson with additional, more challenging vocabulary and practice phrases. That turned my Mandarin practice into a real journey. I typically would alternate between three different topics at a time and move on only when I had completed one of them.

How I Got to 1000 Days

My Duolingo streak was one of my most durable habits ever. And I know exactly how I did it.

I did Duolingo while I pooped every morning.

As a child, I learned from my dad the importance of staying regular. He explained this at some point, but he mainly taught us this by example.

A common strategy for building habits is to stack habits on top of each other, so I stacked my Duolingo habit on top of something that I would do everyday.

It helped that between the pandemic and having a child that I didn’t travel much. It meant that I kept my schedule and comfort of doing things at home.

Anyways, I wish I could stack other habits like this, but I don’t imagine I’m going to get my exercise in on top of this habit as well.

What I Learned

I mainly learned that I can’t learn a language in five minutes a day. At least, I can’t learn Mandarin in five minutes of Duolingo a day.

I picked up some vocabulary, at least briefly. I learned grammar, but in practice, I don’t think grammar is very important. I suspect that can understand and be understood by mostly getting the right words regardless of order.

And my Chinese was never useful in practice. To reinforce the lessons, I listened to Chinese radio on my commute. I could pick out words here and there, but I couldn’t string it together into any useful meaning.

However, it was good for maintenance. I learned quite slowly, but I never got rusty with just five minutes a day. As long as there was more content to study, I kept the streak alive. I was maybe two or three months from running out of content, but then that abruptly ended with a redesign.

The Redesign

Previously, I was working through five levels of each topic to get to the end of the content. Then, Duolingo did a big redesign. Rather than a list of topics to work through, they had a specific path of lessons to complete to move forward.

Image borrowed from the linked blog post

This conceptually seemed good for learners along the path. For about a week, I completed the lessons in the current unit. Then one day, I moved on to continue and found nothing.

I scrolled, quit the app, reloaded, and scrolled again, but I had hit the end of Mandarin Duolingo.

See the gap at the bottom when I tried to pull down

At that point, I realized I was done with Duolingo. I was a few days from 1000 day streak, so I went back to practice some old lessons just to get there. However, after 1000 days and getting to the end of the content, I felt like I hadn’t actually made enough progress to figure out how to continue to get value out of Duolingo.

Next Steps

I briefly considered ending my Mandarin lessons. However, the habit is hard to break now. I immediately started using Du Chinese daily. It combines reading dialogues with spaced repetition for vocabulary, and I can slowly notice progress on the flash cards.

The only way I will actually learn Mandarin is if I need it for immersion. However, if I had to do full immersion, I would suffer for a few months and then figure it out. If I don’t have to do full immersion, then I’ll never get there. It’s quite a paradox.

So I guess I’m really just learning for fun.

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