Let’s go back in time. Rewind the clock by six years, and we’re getting ready to enter the summer of 2015. It was July and I’d just finished my A-Levels. This was the most stress-free I had ever felt. All that lay ahead – the only real certainty – was Results Day in August and, hopefully, a place at the University of Birmingham.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll know that it all worked out in the end. I’d go on to complete my degree and start teaching in the UK’s Second City. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was July, 2015. I decided to continue working a part-time job to earn a little bit of cash to leave me well-prepared for Higher Education, but there was only so much overtime that I could snatch up. The rest of my time was spent playing video games, trying to do a little reading and writing and convincing myself to finally start playing the ukulele. Without exams to prepare for, though, I felt a little directionless. I needed a place to go. That’s when I found Duolingo: a free language-learning app.
I’d always wanted to learn French properly. It was something to do with learning a little at school and never enjoying the process, but knowing that it was an invaluable skill. Eventually, I swapped my focus to Spanish, which was far more useful considering how much I enjoyed visiting the country.
When August rolled around, and I had my place at Birmingham confirmed, I tried to stick to my learning habits, but the amount of time that I devoted to it shifted dramatically across the three years of my course. I’d be constantly losing and regaining my streak, which is added to for every day that you meet your XP goal (mine is set to 10XP, achieved by just one lesson a day). This is because I’d relied purely on motivation to fuel my desire to learn, which we all know isn’t a productive way to live our lives.
Time’s have changed now. At the time of writing, I’m up to a 600-day streak. That means that I’ve learned to speak Spanish every day for 600 days. Or, perhaps that should be yo aprendo español todos los días para 600 días.
Native Spanish speakers, please let me know how much I butchered that line.
600 days of Duolingo. Was it worth the stress?
Give me a break
You can set Duolingo to push a notification to your phone at a specific time each day, which serves as a reminder to learn your new language. Sometimes this is helpful. Other times, I just want to be left alone by their very demanding mascot. I’m switched on all day to focus on work, I like to go to the gym as often as possible, and then come home to work on HardlyHamilton.
Having a daily reminder of yet another thing that I have to do when all that I want to do is sit back and relax isn’t exactly good for somebody’s mental wellbeing.
But maybe I’m blowing that out of proportion. You can, after all, turn off push notifications. The real stress came about in my PGCE year as a trainee teacher. Before buying a car, I had to take the bus to my placement school every single day. I’d use that as an opportunity to learn a little Spanish, because even before I started blogging every week, I was all about those productivity gains.
One day I was particularly exhausted, and didn’t realise that I hadn’t practiced until it was too late. A streak that was over 100-days-long vanished before my eyes. Losing that actually made me lose the will to continue practicing for a while. It’s ridiculous, I know, but the gamification of the habit had made me more focused on my streak than on actually learning the language.
I only have myself to blame, really. But the risk is real: does the risk of losing a streak push you to learn less, or more?
One of the most useful things you’ll ever do
On the other hand, I’m actually really glad that I picked the habit back up. I can’t remember when it was, since I now equip my profile with streak-saver power-ups in case I ever forget to practice or truly cannot be bothered, so the streak doesn’t necessarily reflect how long I’ve actually been learning, but I practice most days every week.
Usually, I learn Spanish before going to bed, since that’s often the only opportunity I have for time with just me, myself and I. Often, I’ll stick to one of the more basic skills, just to sharpen my memory, but increasingly now I’m making more progress with the later skills to upgrade my vocabulary.
Nevertheless, the key question remains: was it worth it? Have I actually found acquiring this new language useful?
You know what? Yes, I have. I certainly couldn’t hold a lengthy conversation with a native Spanish speaker, or somebody who has learned it professionally, or even lived there, but I can happily translate the gist of most things we see in the supermarket when we visit. Or there might be odd snippets of conversation that I can make out if we need directions. Or I can tell my family that la pollo on the menu is referring to the chicken.
And, very importantly, I can employ the most important phrases with ease, such as disculpe, quisiera dos cerveza, por favor.
There are so many people in the world who don’t speak English, and it seems a shame that so many of us never bother to learn how to communicate with them. In reality, learning their language is very little real stress – and you might be able to say hello when you visit.
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