I’m addicted to Duolingo. For those of you unfamiliar with Duolingo, do not fear. My addiction is not self-destructive at all. In fact, Duolingo is helping me achieve a lifetime goal: to learn Italian. Duolingo is a free application available online and for mobile devices which helps users learn foreign languages. Want to learn Portuguese? Duolingo can help. How about Spanish? Duolingo has that covered, too. Duolingo can also help people learn French, German and English. And it’s absolutely free.
But this post isn’t about a free language learning application. It’s about my inability to stop playing Duolingo. I must admit that I’ve always struggled to learn new languages. My brain isn’t wired to easily recall information like foreign words and phrases. Although I took four years of Spanish in high school, I agonized through those classes and remember little of the content I was taught.
But Duolingo is different. Structured like a game, the app takes users through different challenges that progressively get harder. The first few levels were easy to tackle. I was able to select a picture of a dog (un cane) and an apple (una mela). But things got harder. Could I translate a passage to written Italian? Could I write a passage spoken in Italian? Could I recite a passage spoken in Italian? The answer: sometimes. As often happens in good games, I fail a lot. In fact, I’ve played some levels several times before I finally beat them. Each level of the game is organized around different skills and a player gets four chances to answer ten questions that progressively get more difficult. For the old-school game players out there, Duolingo is structured like Super Mario except that players complete language challenges instead of jumping onto mushrooms, collecting coins and trying to save Princess Toadstool. Like players earned new powers as they reached different levels of Super Mario, a Duolingo player learns new words and phrases to solve challenges. And just like my early days playing Super Mario on my Nintendo, I’m absolutely addicted to Duolingo.
But my obsession is productive and educational. It also offers a real counterbalance to my classroom experiences with language learning. While the root skills and procedures are probably similar, the game element is forcing me to dedicate the time I need to overcome my cognitive recall struggles. The game design also makes the process more exciting and motivating. By building in game mechanics like levels, achievements, cascading information theory, and loss aversion, the Duolingo game designers have created an educational experience that is challenging, rewarding and, for some, absolutely addicting.
And that, in essence, is why so many researchers are examining games as ways to improve the educational experiences for students. Beyond having students play games in classes, what if we restructured the classroom environment to include more game mechanics? Could we create face-to-face educational experiences that rivaled Duolingo or Super Mario Brothers? That’s what people like Jane McGonigal, Tom Chatfield and Ali Carr-Chellman are exploring and advocating. Maybe in the not-to-distant future, students will relish the start of the school year in the same way that they celebrate the release of a new version of Call of Duty. For now, I’ll play Duolingo. Arrivederci.