Design Life

The Saddest Owl

Or how I fell out of love with Duolingo.

Years ago, I really loved the design of Duolingo. Particularly Duo, the Owl. I regularly played that game, translating phrases, so that I wouldn’t see the saddest owl reminding me that I hadn’t done my studies.

I picked it up again a while ago to push myself back into learning Korean, and over the intervening years the game had changed. Leaderboards, experience points, and leagues.

And the gamification worked. It drove me to dutifully complete lessons, plug in translations, and work at the app.

But soon I discovered something quite discouraging.

The further I advanced in the course, the worse the lessons were for gaining the experience points I needed to advance in the leaderboards and the leagues.

In fact, ideally to earn experience, I could grind the most basic lessons. Hear “ha”, press “하”. See “꽃”, press “got”. Read “이”, press translation “this”. Meanwhile, the actual lessons with something relevant were based approached carefully, so that I could complete them in the last few hours before the league ended to get a coveted double xp boost, then grind the previously mentioned basic lessons.

Practically, if I focussed on lessons and learning, I would not be competitive in the game aspects of Duolingo.

The game had eaten the lesson plan.

Alas, the only way to disable the leaderboards that disincentivised me from learning, was to set the game to private. But that turned it from a social experience of learning and seeing others learned into simply a not very good language app.

The last straw came from me when I had to translate “이것, 그것, 저것” into English as “this, that, that over there.” It was completely infuriating. Instead of any kind of sentence that would help me fix a word in my memory, instead of any kind of use of Korean that would help me memorise the Korean keyboard layout, instead of anything useful …

This, that, that over there.

This, that, that over there.

This, that, that over there.

This, that, that over there.

This, that, that over there.

In English. Over. Over. Over and again.

But I am weak.

And though I ditched the leaderboards, I still want the streak.

So every day I stagger through a few minutes of Duolingo, cursing the bird as I tap “eu” is “으” and “kka” is “까” for the pointless lesson that adds a day to my streak. Go day 111.


On the other hand, I did eventually find a surprisingly good app that’s more about learning and less about a not-very-fun game: lingodeer.

The examples and the explanations actually explained some things to me that I’d struggled with for ages.

And, though I’m still plenty terrible at Korean, at least I can pretend to myself that I’m trying.

Which is more than this, that, that over there could do.

Happy new tiger year, by the way.


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