Language Gamification: Bullshit vs Bullshit

Gamification may be bullshit, but does that mean it might be just the tool to fight your own, personal brand of bullshit?

Screenshot of Duolingo

Learning foreign languages is hard. Really hard. Part of this has to do with complex neurological reasons, which can only be explained using words like neuroplasticity and monolinguals. Yes, some of the difficulty is hard-wired. But additionally, a part of you just doesn’t like learning foreign languages. It’s complicated and easy to forget, requires a lot of memorization, and you can still sound like an idiot after years of practice. Sometimes the linguistic variations are impossible to pronounce or hear, or the grammatical structures are completely foreign to your mental processes. So you make up bullshit: reasons to skip or skimp on practice, or give up altogether. Learning a foreign language is a constant battle against your lazier self.

Duolingo logo

But Duolingo, a site I’ve recently come to frequent, changes the game, so to speak. It gamifies the process of learning a foreign language, adding daily goals, streaks of meeting your daily goal, unlocking mechanics, currency and purchasing, and total progress towards fluency. Now, it’s not a particularly good way of learning a language. In fact, it’s terrible at teaching. But really, teaching isn’t the point of Duolingo. It’s just a way of defeating your bullshit by replacing it with a more benign type of bullshit.

Duolingo assigns tangible, meaningless progression to the real, intangible progress of learning a language. Without Duolingo as a external, concrete arbiter that says “Yes you are getting better”, learning a language can feel hopeless because no matter how much you master it, there are always more words to learn, faster sentences to parse, and structures you don’t understand. Now, the “percent fluency” that Duolingo feeds you doesn’t necessarily correspond to any real gains, but it affirms that the hard mental work you put in today actually paid off in some continuing educational journey. And that affirmation is what makes you come back the next day to learn more.

Learning a Foreign Language

I have had the benefit of taking Japanese 1 this semester, and it is quite a humbling experience. Learning a language which has no romantic roots — a truly foreign language — lends a certain perspective that learning French or Latin does not.

However, it also seems to me that the teaching method is geared towards a very specific type of learning style. The class starts out by teaching a number of phrases which the students are to memorize, and meanwhile students also begin to learn one of the writing systems. It is not until a few weeks in that students finally learn some grammar (i.e. the thing that actually determines whether or not a communication system is a language), and even then it takes time to learn the exact mechanics behind the memorized phrases.

For instance, we learned how to ask how to say something in Japanese: (english word)wa nihongo de nanto iimasuka. Yet we are not told that nihongo means Japanese language (although it can be inferred), and we certainly aren’t told that ~go is a suffix, applied to the word nihon (Japan), which means the language of. In addition, we aren’t told that nan means what, ~wa is a topic particle (and we certainly aren’t told it’s spelled using は instead of わ, because hell, we don’t even know how to write at that point), or that to is a sort of quotation mark (if we are, it is only in passing and without context).

Insights can only be gleamed by comparing the response: (Japanese word)to iimasu. Now it becomes clear that ~ka is a question particle. So yes, nanto became (word)to, so ~to must be some sort of literal marker suffix. iimasu must be “say”, or thereabouts.

My point is that it is very hard for me to memorize phrases or words with no context. The teaching style is designed to help a certain type of learner. My learning style would benefit greatly from learning a variety of grammar and vocabulary separately, and letting my brain concoct the phrases from their base elements; when I speak, it flows logically, and my mind pronounces one morpheme at a time. Learning whole phrases with no context means I can’t break it down into morphemes, and so production of the sounds comes much harder.

Perhaps this will change after we get past the first few weeks, but I can’t help worrying that this sort of learn-specifics-then-learn-rules teaching style will continue.

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