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My mom: "Are you treating language learning like Nintendo?"

Yeah my mom seriously asked me this today. I try to tell her how Duolingo works every time I bring it up (because she asks me to) and she doesn't really get it.

At first: "I mean, you're learning Spanish, don't you get like homeworks from Duolingo every day?"

Later: "Why are you learning so many languages? Can you actually speak any of them?"

Today (when I mentioned levels): "Are you treating language learning like Nintendo?"

Now, I would like to say a few things about those comments.

Firstly, I never considered myself a Language Guru. Kuddos to anyone who use that title and can actually convince me that they can speak 5 or 7 or more languages from different families at a conversational level. But, seriously, just because I know some things about a language doesn't give me the right to brag about how great I am at languages. Learning a language is a task that should be approached humbly, carefully and with goals. It might take a while before you find out how to do it correctly and what language(s) you want to do, but in general it should be pretty consistent. At least do a review every day.

But, here is the thing that got me wondering: unlike the old-fashioned "by the book" method, Duolingo's game-like learning curve algorithm system can actually make some people "obsessed" with not necessarily languages, but Duolingo itself. Duolingo uses rewards (albeit small ones) to keep us going. Many people like rewards. Well, their brain is the one who actually likes it. When we feel rewarded, our brain actually has this system that tells us we should feel good, and using chemicals it creates and the bio-electronic network that is the nervous system, we remember the good experiences better than the times we don't feel rewarded. This is the same thing that happens when we win a level in a video game or we did something that is hard with success. And many people like that feeling.

Admittedly when I was younger I used Duolingo as a reward-feeding system whenever I got on to learn Spanish. This wasn't healthy for me. Since then I've learnt that immersion through conversation and media is the best way to learn a language, and I've been learning in healthier ways like reading and listening to music, and though things I liked in the first place like YouTube videos and helping random people in the stores. It's actually more helpful in a few ways, like advanced vocabulary and studying a new sentence for the grammar in it. In this way you also study the science behind the language, not just the words and phrases.

Question to all who read this far: Have you ever treated language learning like a game? What did you do to get away from that?

August 30, 2017



Great post!

I still largely treat learning Japanese like a game. I use duolingo, I have a game (Slime Forest Adventure) that teaches how to read kanji, and I own a Japanese Nintendo 2DS with a Japanese Pokemon game (the original reason I wanted to learn Japanese was to play untranslated RPGs on my Nintendo or Super Nintendo).

For all of the "non fun" part of learning the language, I use the flashcard program anki to make it more fun - my "score" in anki is basically how many flashcards I have in total (how many words/rules/phrases accumulated), and by extension how few flashcards I need to review the following day. I've gone through an entire book with anki ("Easy Japanese" by Jack Seward).

My learning French is similar, although I did 11 years of French in school. Aside from duolingo I've put in an entire Larousse French-English dictionary's worth of nouns into my anki flashcards. As for Hebrew, the only reason I've made any significant progress so far has been from duolingo, so I've got to say I'm a big fan of "gaming" my languages!

And the funniest thing is that I don't even play games anymore, at least not very often (I probably average once every couple of months). But I used to play for many hours everyday! So now I'm just using that part of my brain to fulfill my true goals in life.


As an avid gamer, I feel like the perfect person to answer this question.

Yes, I have seen it as a game from the start. Learning French is not a need for me, but it's a want and a challenge... similar to games. About me: I am a PS3 gamer, and I have beaten with 100% some very difficult ultra-rare games, my best ones being Retro/Grade, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed and more... they were very challenging. Some of them don't even have platinum trophies. As well as that, I have set many high leaderboard rankings, and I won some online co-op challenges in Rayman Legends using 4 controllers all by myself. What is the main reason I play all these hard games? Unlike many gamers who hunt trophies, it's actually not for the trophies themselves. I play such games for the pride and feeling at the end when after hard work and efforts, you finally beat them. It's an overwhelming feeling, and is what keeps me going back.

Now, despite how it is seemingly impressive to beat such gaming challenges and the comments I got from other impressed gamers, it was in fact time for a real challenge... and a very good answer was to attempt to learn French! It's also my first foreign language. What I can say is this: neither Retro/Grade nor BCR even come close to the difficulty of learning a language up to fluency! 5 months of studying hours per day, and am still far from done. I have a little chance to speak in real life, but it's not a lot... only my French grandma who speaks English anyway. Like I said before, I feel overwhelmed with a shock of pride after beating extremely hard games, and French is going to be exactly the same. It's going to be far more extreme than ever, and to this day even hard to imagine. That said, I don't feel a desire to learn any more languages. I will be very satisfied to have learned French, and I hope I'll have chances to use it in my life. As of recently, gaming is actually now my main method of learning French. I stay interested, and it works very well... although I avoid anything with too much story, otherwise I'll likely miss things.

As for what's going on between you and your mum, I am not quite sure why she is finding problems. Why is she telling you how it should be done? It's your learning and your method. Learning languages is not a vital need to you, so why is it a problem if it's just something you do as a light hobby? Even if you are treating games like Nintendo and enjoying that method, ask her what is the problem with that. You are simply enjoying this use of spare time, and having fun at the same time as learning. In fact, we learn far better from engaging methods that keep us motivated... if we get bored, motivation drops and progress either slows or dies. Obviously your primary focus on Duolingo should be to learn a language - we're not here for keeping trees gold or earning huge amounts of XP.

TLDR version: Yes, I do treat my language learning like another new and incredibly hard game for me, only this time on a much much larger scale. I have done zero to get away from thinking like this, because I don't see any reason to discourage it. It's worked very well for me. I've learned well, I've stayed motivated and still am.


Very well said. I like video games as well although I'm not very competitive. I'm more of a puzzle game person although the feeling of reward isn't different from being on the top. Challenges are fun, but only when it's a challenge you can do. I admit that some challenges are just impossible for me.

My mom doesn't really understand the concept of learning through the internet. She thinks it's more like books just online. She was actually the type of person to read dictionaries for fun when she was younger, and she was also the person who taught me how to read and write (because my dyslexia was a problem. I kept spelling even the simple words in weird ways, like "cat" as "zat"). Funnily enough, she also took Spanish classes in high school and was able to pick up on some Italian and French because of it.

I don't shun the concept of treating your method like a game. I actually keep a record of how many levels I have in each language course and my next goals in each using the note program on my computer (get to level X by Y month, finish the tree by Z month, ect) and it looks like a ranking system. But being someone who tried to escape the world through gaming and prolonged interactive screen time a lot as a young teen, I had a hard time thinking about the real world and the real uses of language. Although not all the languages I'm learning is immediately thought of as "useful", there are many languages that mean something to me. Linguistics is one of my passions and has been for some years now. I might as well have fun with it, especially since it's not a career of mine (yet).

Anyways, I wish you the best of luck with French. It's not quite an easy language, especially in terms of spelling. Whatever works well for you, it'll get you far.


Simple answer to your mother: "Yes. That's what gamification is about. Duolingo uses gamification to encourage users to soldier on in language-learning even at points when they may be becoming fatigued of bored."

It surprises me to hear that your mother is not more supportive of your spending time on Duolingo. Would she really rather you wile away your free time loitering in shopping malls or playing World of Warcraft or whatever game is trendy nowadays?


I wouldn't say she's not supportive of my time on Duolingo. I don't think my spare time is any of her business, and that's her attitude. She has an old-fashioned attitude towards learning in general. Always a "by the book" sort of person. So talking about Duolingo has her thinking about an online classroom, which is not what Duolingo is.


WOW - great post DragonPolyglot !
Also a couple of lingots.


Thank you for the lingots and comment, lindakanga! It's been a while since I've last seen you... thank you for being such the kind moderator you are. :) It's amazing to have someone like you around.


I treat it more like a challenge being able to understand a foreign language is the only thing i care about the only problem is that im going to push my self too far i cant focus on just one language

i try to make it fun i now watch Spanish news i play my video games in Portugese and i like to read Wikipedia articles in a different language when i get the chance this way im learning 2 things at once i have a browser extension that lets me translate pages word by word this way i can even read things in languages i have very little knowledge off like Romanian.


Could you say what browser extension do you use?


I use read lang they also have more stuff.


I never really treated language learning like a game, and if anyone said it was a game, I'd tell them that I wasn't playing a game, I was learning languages. Apparently, when I told someone this (it's not like I said it rudely) they yelled at me and said, oh please, they're the same thing! Gaming is useless, and language learning is useless! I was just, oh, fab, you're a conceited snob now, how excellent.


Actually, I kind of hope you are :)

Nintendo or other video gaming is something you do for fun after all. When I was a kid we had something called a Sega Master System that was similar to the more famous NES by Nintendo, and my mum/teachers never had to force me to spend time on that lol. Just about the last thing I would ever want to do on a Sunday afternoon would have been my modern foriegn languages homework. And our only family holiday each year was to France for 3 weeks - I actually liked French lol.

Language learning used to be (In my experience of the British curriculum in the 80's-90's) unbelievably tedious for young people. Lots of text books, lots of word lists, boring lecture style teaching, homework and tests followed by highly pressured exams. I can't say that I enjoyed more than 5% of time I spent in the French/German/Spanish/Latin lessons of my entire secondary school career. Actually I can still remember looking at my timetable, seeing that I'd have a double lesson of French first thing and start fantasising about the train to school breaking down!

If duo, and other sites/apps/youtube/whatever are making language learning fun and something you want to do recreationally as a teenager, I think that's awesome!


I mostly treat Duolingo as a source of exercises, exposing me to the languages on a daily basis. Which is a really useful thing, in my opinion. That's not to say that the game-y nature of Duolingo hasn't gotten to me a little, but insofar as it has, I'd say that a good thing. I think you're right; Gamification is not the route to fluency--but it isn't a bad thing, as far as it goes. I study grammar books, and listen to music, and watch videos in my target language, and sometimes, if I'm lucky, I get the chance to actually interact with people in it. But...I don't always do those things everyday. Duolingo makes it really easy to expose myself to the language, and reinforce it, on a daily basis, in little tiny pieces. Any language teacher will tell you it's better to study for fifteen minutes every day than two hours once a week. That's basically what Duolingo does; it makes it easy to get that fifteen minutes in. If you can do other things--if you can help people in stores, if you can listen to foreign language music, if you can read--that's great! You should absolutely be doing those things. Duolingo is not trying to replace any of those things. But as a supplement, it's really, really good.

To answer your actual question in more direct terms; yes, sometimes I have treated language learning like a game. And the best route away from that is to become good enough to be really immersed in other things, like books or music, which it sounds like you're already doing. That's where I am in Japanese. Duolingo's Japanese course isn't all that interesting to me, because I've gotten good enough to bury myself in it in other ways. But I don't think there's any reason to shy away from the game-y method of language learning, if you're not at that point yet.

Also, I don't think there's anything wrong with studying multiple languages at once, as long as you don't go overboard. I usually have three-ish going at a time. I think it can be nice to use one language as a break from another. The worst that's ever happened to me is that sometimes I get things mixed up between languages occasionally, but not so much as you might think. Some languages even reinforce each other. And I can attest that it possible to improve and get fairly good, even if you are multi-tasking.


Even though Duolingo is technically a "game", I've never treated it like one. Thus, I've never really treated language learning like a game, either.

If you couldn't tell by my username, I love video games, especially The Legend of Zelda. So, I'm a Nintendo geek, respectively. Though, I do favor some Final Fantasy games and is in love with the Fable series (the second game primarily). I'm not into horror games, but I'm starting to see a trend in that genre where their games are becoming more philosophical and thought provoking, in which I will say The Park is a good one., among many others. I used to love Call of Duty, I still love the Sonic Franchise, and I could go on, but I'll try to stop myself. I like games that are beyond their genre, beyond gaming in general. Those that have stories that are allegorical, that are simply deep in nature are the ones I try to play. The reason why it's a bit difficult for me to answer this question is because I don't even treat my games like games. Rather, I treat them as sources that can influence and better me in the real world (or like books), in terms of how I view specific topics, like morality.

Duolingo is one of those sources that is essentially a part of my own personal growth as a well-rounded individual who wants to dive into the mist of these different languages and cultures, even though I'm nowhere near to being a language guru. In fact, I'm only actively learning French for one main reason, which never came hard to me, which was a bit motivating when I began. Before and during my high school career, many tragic things occurred in my life that made me want to give up being an honor student; it hardly seemed worth it no matter how many times people praised me for my intelligence (not that I was prideful in any way). But, entering my first French class and learning about Duolingo from my teacher, and eventually doing it, helped me understand the importance of consistency and focusing on the small advancements rather than the entire picture. I've also been more aware with culture from the forums, which is always great. Overall, such as how games guide me in my intellectual life, Duolingo helps steer me towards being a braver, more articulate person, not to mention it has greatly enhanced my French skills going into college.

Games mean something to me that is hard to convey to anyone else. It has gotten me through mourning and, surprisingly, has taught me life lessons (and skills on how to solve puzzles!). Similarly, Duolingo has gotten me through the bad and I would never trade my experience for one that seemed more desirable.

By the way, I love your post! Your mom should be quite proud of you and your dedication to language learning.


Thank you for the kind words. :)

Games are certainly evolving, especially today. Playing a game for the story is becoming as meaningful as playing for the action, perhaps more depending on the type of game and the audience.

Hopefully everyone on Duolingo will make their story through some play on here. We already have a lot of amazing ones, like the job story from a Chilean user. Duolingo helps us play the game of life and succeed.


Please teach your mom that we are doing science through a game-like system, to perform nothing but... language learning, to a new level of efficiency. With a game-like system. With more effectiveness than a college course.

To all of you out there, you are now witnessing a revolution. I hope this gets even better than it already is.

[I actually envy those of you who get more pleasure out of rewards when a hard challenge has been won. I can as well adapt myself to become more sensitive to this kind of stimuli to some extent. I am currently making efforts towards the achievement of this.]

To me, it is rewarding to keep your skills golden, to win lingots by keeping your streak, and as well, the sound that plays when you finish a lesson. I suspect the most encouraging is to keep a very long streak.


i guess i treat Duolingo as a helper along with my Spanish curriculum than a game though i sometimes treat it as a challenge everyday. and i do enjoy leveling up and everything.


Duolingo is a great helper for almost any curriculum. It's also a great just-starting-out place. I think the reason many people like it is because the goals and rewards it gives motivates them. I know I like leveling up too, sometimes it's a little hard not to focus on the levels. The way around this is to focus on the realistic goals, like learning enough of the language to ask for directions and order from a coffee shop without switching to English.


I'm not sure that I've treated it as a game. I've set goals for myself, specifically to reach here in Duolingo, and then after reading some of the comments and FAQs am going to have to rethink those goals. They once seemed feasible and now seem ridiculous for the time I allotted myself to reach them (I wanted to be at 50% proficiency by the end of this month, but it seems that with Duolingo one can only reach 50-60% period over and it takes more than a few weeks-mind you, I've only been on here for 2 weeks and am at 33% and will be at 34-35% before I leave work tonight at least and do not work on this while at home on my weekends because I can not log into it unless I'm at work). I'm trying to figure out this program still. I've passed several check marks but they won't light up. All the sections are completed and golden and checked off in those areas, but they still won't light up. What am I missing? This is the game...where is the save point? lol


The gamification of language learning isn't bad! Most parents associate video games with wasting time, but if learning languages is like a game to you, then you get the fun AND the educational time! You get the best of both worlds. Learning doesn't have to be boring so that you can retain what you've learned.


Has your mom tried Duolingo. If not, get her to try it. She will see it is another learning tool that helps you advance your language skills. Maybe you will get her hooked.

When I was in school, it was all books and drills. Maybe if I had Duolingo I would have actually learned Spanish and German. I 'm doing Italian now and I have to say in a year's time I have learned far more than I learned in all those years of Spanish and German. I'm even considering Duolingo German once I finish the Italian tree.


Duolingo was the thing that kept me in Spanish class for four years, so I'm with you on that. It's not the gaming experience that's bad, it depends on how you use it.


Well, by looking at my profile pic and my username, one could assume what I like to do in my spare time. :) Other people have already said this, but no, I don't treat it as a game. Sure, I like it when I level up but that's not the reason I'm here. However, the gaming aspect of Duo (and other sites like Memrise) does help on days when I REALLY don't want to do language learning. At least I can say that I am getting something out of it, unlike playing my beloved Kingdom Hearts/Pokemon/Zelda/other game series.


Italian is the first one I treat like a game, simply because it's fun and fun = motivation = sucess. AAaand I have to learn it from scratch and that can be pretty daunting at times.

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