App And Away We Go: Duolingo Chinese Learning App

Learning a new language or trying to brush-up on your Mandarin? There is an app for that. Try this convenient language app in your spare time, and you might just learn something.

So, it’s finally come down to this. My long and somewhat involuntary European sojourn this summer has pushed me to that ultimate retreat of language learners: mobile apps. A cute green-feathered owl reminds me every day that it’s time for my Chinese studies and I’m only too happy to oblige. After all, one of the first phrases that the app taught me how to say was “如果你很懒,多儿会哭”, or “If you’re lazy, Duo will cry.” Duo, by the way, is the name of my new friend, the green owl. And who would want to make a little bird cry, right?

I’ll admit it, it’s not only the fear of making Duo sad that propels me to carve out a few minutes every day for practicing my Mandarin. After all, I’ve already revealed to my faithful readers an obsessive trait that has recently led me to a minor addiction to C-dramas. Naturally, apps are there to shamelessly exploit exactly the same psychological mechanism. The only reason I’ve so far successfully resisted getting hooked on the likes of Candy Crush is that I never even considered downloading games to my phone. I know how hard it can be, “Once you pop, you can’t stop,” as the old Pringles ad goes.

My currently preferred language-learning app, Duolingo, turns out to be just as addictive as those meaningless games, yet, hopefully, serving a higher purpose. The way it manages to attract and engage me, along with its over 300 million registered users across the world, is by skillfully mimicking the very structure of those games. By studying hard (or playing) I can earn more gems, or “lingots”, the app’s own currency, which I can then proceed spending on buying fancy clothes for customizing my owl, or alternatively saving them for rainy days. There are plenty of rainy days. If you are not concentrated enough and make more than five mistakes and thus lose all of your allotted hearts for that day, you have to quit. If you’ve saved enough gems, you can buy some more hearts and proceed to the next level.

Then there are the public leaderboards in which I can compete against my friends or see how I stack up against the rest of the world. There’s the strive for keeping my streak, i.e. how many days in a row I’ve managed to study without interruption, that all of a sudden comes to define my self-worth… It’s an elaborate system of rules that govern the land of Duolingo, or 多邻国. Don’t you just love the Chinese name that translates to “Many Neighbors’ Land”?

Would I ever become fluent in Mandarin by practicing with Duo for fifteen minutes a day? I seriously doubt it. But I do hope it might prevent me from totally forgetting all I’ve learned so far while being on an extended break. Mostly, I enjoy my daily dose of familiar and less so Chinese characters that I get to repeat until they finally stick in my poor brain.

I get a little frustrated when my slightly less stringent translation of a convoluted sentence does not meet with Duo’s approval. Somehow, the way I pronounce the name of my friend Duo, is never quite right, I need to repeat it over and over again. It’s all good fun though.

My favorite part so far has been learning Duo’s version of net slang. How come I’ve managed to pass HSK level 5 without covering those basic phrases yet?

Finally, I can talk about unfollowing a friend’s Weibo account, ask someone to give me a “like” below and inquire about a bad internet connection in Mandarin. I’m learning some Japanese net slang that is commonly used in English as well. For example, I hadn’t really encountered the word otaku before the wise green owl, Duo, taught me what it meant, as well as how to say it in Mandarin. Wouldn’t you like to know?