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Apply Intentionality to Your Downtime with Duolingo

In this Mindfulness Monday post, we take a look at Duolingo and why you might want to use it to apply intentionality to your downtime on your iPhone.

An intentional approach to technology doesn’t necessarily mean that you use your devices less, but it does mean that you are a little bit picky about how you use them. The goal is to replace the activities that don’t provide you any real benefit with things that you deem valuable.

The problem is that many people don’t give a second thought to how they are using their devices. They’re on autopilot, and the first thing they try to do when they become aware of just how much time they’re involuntarily giving to things like social media and email is to try to eliminate those things cold turkey. If you really want to apply intentionality to your tech, you need to replace them with something else.

One of the things that has helped fill the void for me is Duolingo, a free app that can help you learn another language.

Duolingo was named Apple’s Free App of the Year in 2013 and is a great way to use your iPhone to learn another language when you’re looking to kill some time. You can apply the same concept with a different app if you prefer, but personally I think there’s a lot to like about Duolingo. According to the Duolingo Effectiveness Study published in 2012, 34 hours of study in Duolingo is the approximate equivalent of a single semester of college education.

(The study was done by an external research team that also previously measured the effectiveness of other self-study programs. If you’re curious about how Duolingo compares, the researchers found that it took approximately 55 hours of study in Rosetta Stone to reach the equivalent of one semester of college.)

But for me, Duolingo isn’t about mastering a skill. It’s simply an entertaining diversion, not something I’m trying to use to advance my career. I am the textbook definition of a casual learner, so I had serious doubts about whether Duolingo would stick for me. I had taken a couple of years of Spanish previously in high school, but didn’t enjoy it and honestly can’t recall anything I might have learned. Up until this summer when I went to Costa Rica with my church, I had never traveled outside the U.S. and had absolutely zero desire to learn a second language. So picking up Duolingo for me was more about creating an intentional learning habit than achieving a goal.

Surprisingly, I found that the gamification of learning a language in Duolingo really clicked for me. It’s a simple mechanicism where you complete lessons to earn XP and move on to further levels. You start with a number of hearts (sort of like a health gauge in a role-playing game), and you lose a heart whenever you answer a question incorrectly. The questions themselves get progressively harder, from simple multiple choice questions to speaking and translating whole sentences. When you run out of hearts, your progress in the middle of your current lesson is lost and you must wait until your health replenishes (sometime within the next 24 hours.) You can purchase more hearts with gems that you earn from completing lessons and watching the occasional ad if you really don’t want to wait, and the app keeps track of your daily XP goals to build streaks and develop momentum to keep going.

Duolingo lessons

The courses are designed in a tree-type structure that progresses from top-to-bottom. The lessons are grouped together by topic, like Phrases, Restaurant, Travel, and School. You have to complete at least level one of each available group before unlocking the next one in the course tree, but each has four levels of lessons to complete before the icon turns gold, indicating that you’ve completed all the lessons for that particular section. There are periodic checkpoints that test your mastery of the concepts that have been taught so far, and you have to pass these checkpoints to continue on your journey.

Another interesting feature of Duolingo is the Stories that you can unlock once you reach a certain checkpoint. These are conversational stories between multiple people that appear in line like a text message thread. The lines are expressively read out loud, and Duolingo will periodically ask you questions to gauge your comprehension of the story. It’s a nice change of pace from the regular lessons, and while the stories are fairly simple, they are an effective way to help solidify the vocabulary you’ve learned.

There are also achievements that you can unlock, like reaching a 50-day streak, completing 100 lessons without making a mistake, or reaching 7500 XP. These achievements don’t really do anything, but it is motivating to see your progress as you go.

You can also add your friends so you can compete against each other, and you automatically get added to a leaderboard when you start your first lesson so you can compete against others. The leaderboards are interesting, as you are placed in a group that competes for one week when you start your first lesson. The top performers (based on total XP accumulated during the time period) move up a level, where you are placed in another group that is progressively more competitive. The number of people who advance in each level also decreases, providing incentive to keep practicing if you really want to reach the top level in the app.

You can use the app completely free if you’d like, but if you want to remove the heart limit (and the occasional ad) you can upgrade to Duolingo Plus. I haven’t felt the need to do this yet, as you can also spend the gems you collect in the app for completing lessons to purchase more hearts when needed. There are a couple of other things DuoLingo Plus gives you, like offline lessons, streak repair (if you accidentally miss a day), and progress quizzes. There’s a one week free trial if you want to try it out, after which Duolingo Plus costs $9.99/month or $79.99/year — significantly less than a university class.

To be honest, I still don’t view learning a second language as a goal to achieve or something that will be extremely useful for me someday, but I enjoy Duolingo immensely and find myself looking forward to my daily lessons. I use Duolingo because it’s fun; acquiring a new skill is somewhat of an ancillary benefit. And now when I find myself reaching to pull my phone out of my pocket, I have something that I consider a positive replacement to the “just checks” and the endless feeds.

As of October 1st, there are 34 English language courses available on Duolingo. You can get started by downloading Duolingo for free on the iOS App Store.

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