Exploring new languages with Duolingo


Photo by Elizabeth Cheng

Although I started learning Spanish on Duolingo for fun, the daily habit has made me significantly more fluent in the language.

Emma Constable, Staffer

Five young Guatemalan girls clamored around me with sweet smiles on their faces, reaching for my hands and rushing me over to the shade under a nearby tree. 

“Jugar con nosotros?” Maria asked eagerly as she played with my hair. 

They had already set the scene: there were six places prepared, with ceramic teacups the size of my palm and a handful of knitted guests waiting patiently in a circle. Although at 16, I was nearly three times their age, I felt a pang of nostalgia for playing make-believe as a child back home. I was honored that although I could not speak their language, these girls treated me with dignity and affection. I was a stranger from the U.S., but they saw me as their friend. 

I returned home from my service trip to AMI International School reminiscing about my time there, from playing fútbol under the warm afternoon sun to teaching the girls how to make daisy chains. My only regret was that the limited Spanish I had taught myself in the weeks prior had not been sufficient to understand their jokes and stories. Instead of just heartwarming memories, I wanted to gain a tangible skill from my experience, so when lockdown officially began in March 2020, continuing to study Spanish on Duolingo was the one pursuit I had sincere motivation for.  

I scheduled my 10-minute lessons in the morning, often while multitasking. After a few weeks, I looked forward to logging into the app and seeing the green Duolingo owl flash across my screen. If I ever forgot, the owl sent me emails to guilt-trip me, urging me to practice, but I was mainly motivated by the friends I made on the platform who gave me high fives for completing streaks and leveling up. Days turned into weeks turned into months, until finally I woke up one morning to a notification that I’d completed a full 365-day streak. 

Although I was using the app casually, without realizing it my fluency level greatly increased. I could suddenly understand snippets of commercials for Spanish wines, and English translations of Spanish lyrics on the radio materialized in my brain. I fully appreciated the giant cat mural in Los Gatos, and I even discerned from a Spanish voicemail that I should check my correo electrónico for information about my car insurance. 

However, I was still not confident in my ability to speak Spanish in public. The accent and speech patterns were very different from the French I was learning at school, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of a native speaker. I also tragically lost my highest streak, over 400 days, in May 2021 due to a busy week where integrals and cell membranes took precedence over learning how to order at el restaurante. 

For a few days, I was dejected at having lost all my progress until the Duolingo owl popped into my notification center yet again and urged me to continue my efforts. After hesitantly completing a lesson, I realized that the vocabulary and skills I had learned were still cemented in my brain. My progress was not defined by a number at all. 

I immediately recovered the habit following my epiphany and restarted my streak, fueled by the knowledge that I was improving even without immediate results, and after a few more months, I proved how far I’d come. A lady at the grocery store asked me a question in Spanish, and instead of letting shyness take over, I responded confidently to show her where to find los tomates. 

During the summer of 2021, I also started learning German. Although the language intimidated me, it equally fascinated me and I was no longer opposed to facing a linguistic challenge.  In preparation for my trip to Italy in June 2022, I am also currently learning Italian. 

While taking in the culture of the languages I learn on Duolingo is difficult, I am grateful for having pursued this activity all throughout and after quarantine. Learning a substantial number of new languages on my own has helped me discover and better appreciate my intrinsic motivation and love for learning. 

Maintaining my streak takes time and diligence, and I still have far to go. However, I am proud of myself for finding a new passion and holding myself accountable to succeed at something new.