The Genius of Duolingo

You have to admire Duolingo. You really do.

The way they have established themselves as synonymous with “online language learning” and positioned themselves as number one in that field. From a business perspective alone, it is a very hard thing to accomplish. We could almost say that any person wishing to learn a new language online will almost automatically transition through Duolingo. Doing otherwise would be like watching films without knowing about Netflix or cheating in high school without knowing about Chat GPT. Almost impossible.

When I first discovered them years ago, I admit that I really had it in for Duolingo. A few grey hairs then came my way and with it a bit of moderation that made me see them under a new angle. They are no longer the “fast food of education” who deserved to be pelted with tomatoes. They are rather a fascinating reflection of the human psyche and simply offer a product that matches the human way of processing reality.

(Picture: Men playing with their toys. These men do not work for Duolingo.)

The role of symbols and how we use our brains

To explain the appeal of Duolingo in easy terms, it is important to understand the role of symbolism in our processing of “reality”. Contrary to animals, we are not moved by instincts alone. We are thinking creatures who are capable of rational and complex choices.

We know that these choices are influenced by subconscious factors. For example, a subconscious need for comfort, pleasure and happiness. The combination of subconscious and rational brings us to first base: this is where we find ourselves when we have decided to perform a certain action such as learning a language with Duolingo. But once we have reached “base one” this is where the meaning quickly fades and the complexity of human thinking plays tricks on us.

(Picture: Humans can give another meaning to anything they choose.)

The meaning fades and turns into a symbol

Let’s put languages aside and take the example of a gym. A person who first joins a gym usually performs the action of “staying fit”. They use the machines diligently, get a good sweat in and track their progress. We could say that the action is stripped down to the essentials. The gym goer uses the gym for its intended purpose and builds muscle. First base is in harmony with its intended purpose.

But as time goes by, the mind will make new associations with the gym: fun, happiness, relaxation, friends, socializing, getting away from the kids… New and more elaborate meanings to “going to the gym” creep in and transform the initial impulse. The first purpose that got us to the gym fades away and is supplanted by the new mental associations. This is when going to the gym becomes a symbol. We still go there but without actively doing much “keeping fit”.

Going to the gym has now become a Symbol.

The role of Symbols in everyday life

The examples of symbols as guiding forces in human behaviour are everywhere. We need look no further than TV advertising. They don’t sell us the thing, they sell the idea associated with the thing.

When we get hired at a new job we might initially promise to do our utmost to make the business thrive. At first, going to work means giving the best of ourselves as a professional. Several months down the line we find that the meaning has changed. “Going to work” is now routine and has turned into a symbol. It is no longer the conscious desire to make the business thrive.

(Picture: the symbol of going to work. As it doesn’t happen.)

On most days, “going to school” is equally just as much a symbol for education. Whether the exact definition of school is understood and applied is not important to the way kids use it. We might consciously know that learning does not take place every hour of the day, but it does not matter. It is a symbol that we are happy to accept.

A more down-to-earth example might be our perception of eating mac ‘n cheese. Whether it tastes nice or contains valuable nutrients is beyond the question. It is rather the symbol of “happy food” and the sum total of mental associations we make. If we interrupted an eater to ask them how truly happy they are thanks to this food, they would find the question absurd. But this does not prevent them from accepting mac n’ cheese as a symbol for happiness or comfort.

These four examples show that we easily let go of the initial definition and “true meaning” of the things that we name. It is in the human nature to make our perception evolve. (A “marriage” in the first 2 months is not the same “marriage” 20 years later, but we still call it by the same word right?)

The genius of Duolingo

By design or by mere chance, the genius of Duolingo is in understanding these traits of human psychology and exploiting them to a tee. They have “gamefied” language learning and proposed a learning platform that keeps millions engaged by partaking in the Symbol of learning.

As a language teacher and business owner, I understand with genuine humility how ahead of the curve Duolingo truly were when they launched their product. I was the purist dietician laughing at Mc Donalds saying “Haha! People will never buy that! There’s no real food in it!”

Keep laughing Chris because Mc Donalds and Duolingo understand much better how humans process reality.

I suspect that the brains behind Duolingo knew very well how it would play out. They had an understanding that the last thing most people ever want to do is make an effort. They also knew that if they mixed fun with “learning”, it would not matter if any actual learning took place. Because the minds of their customers would do the rest: they would be quite happy to apply the Symbol of learning to the name Duolingo.

Instead of racking their minds to find the best way to teach languages, Duolingo had the far superior intellect and common sense to say: “Hang on. This makes no sense. To consumer doesn’t really want to get good at a languages. They want to be comfortable, have fun and are very happy to engage in the symbol of learning. Why are we wasting time an energy to try to shove these languages down their throats?”

They were right,

It’s absolutely brilliant and I even suspect that some users are actually capable of going one step further and convince themselves they are learning.

Where we go from there

The more I observe people, the more I believe that it is a rare human skill to make the decision of simplicity and to stick with it. Our own best students are a breed of individuals who understand that the French language is well within their grasp once they manage to separate it from the Symbol of “attending a class”. When they step out of the “pretend zone” and take real action. Then the results are soon to come.

French is a very structured language that can be learned in well under a year. We could argue that it takes the will to step out of the “pretend zone” and into the reality of learning.

Funny thing though isn’t it? We think we all agree on the definition of words when in fact not at all. In some cases, we must remind our fellow humans that their definition of actions does not match reality.

There is of course nothing wrong with enjoying Duolingo and they have not done anything that any other big advertiser doesn’t already do: play on the weaknesses of human psychology and propose new mental associations. Just as Nescafe means “sexy”, Coca-Cola means “young”, and Disney means “dreaming”, Duolingo means…”learning”.

As long as we realize it’s all a marketer’s dream, we’ll be fine.

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