We’ve all had that drive to start learning a new language every now and again, and thankfully the internet has made the tools to start with more accessible than ever. Thus in come programs such as Duolingo, launched in 2011, to guide us into the world of foreign languages. However, having returned to it once more to give learning French a try, I find that this particular program is perhaps much more effective at being a video game than as a language tool.
Duolingo’s framework is quite obviously inspired by video game lore, and why wouldn’t it be, pulling in the casual gamer market that is anyone who owns a mobile phone or tablet . When the player completes one module, a new one is unlocked and often times the path may branch giving the player the option to choose what to try next. Furthermore we gain EXP that helps us climb the leaderboards, and currency, in this instance named Lingots, to purchase power-ups, costumes and extra modules. There are even achievements to collect as the game logs how fluent we are becoming in our chosen language and rewards for maintaining our chosen EXP threshold on a daily basis. And for those completionists among us we can aim to keep all those modules in gold status by refreshing our skills every now and again. Yet the term module here is entirely interchangeable with the term level, and therein lies the problem.
This framework is ultimately familiar to anyone who regularly plays mobile/tablet gaming. For me it’s almost entirely the same setup found in Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, so playing both back to back doesn’t feel so jarring a transition. Both games ultimately ask players to complete levels to unlock harder, more challenging levels and both give the opportunity to at least share an aspect of their progress with other players around the world. Yet we can’t really compare the two can we, as after all Duolingo is an app to help us in learning, whereas something like Record Keeper isn’t exactly adding practical skills to my real world repertoire.
However it is this framework that trips Duolingo up, turning it more into a video game experience over the language learning tool it prides itself on being. The focus becomes completing the levels, getting that short burst of satisfaction one receives from say, completing a level on Super Mario Bros. I’ve heard people boast they completed Duolingo within a month, and I’m sure the app praised those players for becoming 100% fluent in their new language. But it’s a hollow victory, we learn little in the way of grammar along the way and let’s face it, don’t have any conversation with another real life speaker, experiences which we must admit, are essential to the language learning process. Just the other day my partner asked me what a word meant which was included in the previous question and I had no idea what he was on about. It’s just being asked to act on intellect rather than instinct wouldn’t exactly make for a daily enjoyable casual gaming experience. These experiences simply don’t fit in with the app’s desire to provide an experience the player will want to keep returning for; the language learning tool doesn’t work unless we want to keep playing.
Thus I felt compelled to write about this supposed language learning tool on a video game blog site, because this is simply another video game I want to complete and excel in. Whether any meaningful progress will be made in my quest to learn French is at this moment entirely unimportant to me. Duolingo is a game, and really it’s a very good game, but as a learning tool it has a ways to go before it’s an entirely comprehensive experience. Sure there are forums to lend anyone interested further a hand, but these are far from the forefront of the tool. Learning should be fun, it can make it all the more rewarding, but perhaps we still have a ways to go before gaming and learning can be sourced in equal measure. At some point one has to give way to the other and at that point, are we taking lessons, or playing a video game?
For more on the Gamification of Duolingo check this post out here!