Duolingo Serves Elephant Tapas

karenLast week I blogged about my all-time favorite strategy for getting things done, citing the late General Creighton Abrams admonition:

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”

It works. It just works. I’m often surprised to learn how many students don’t include the forkful-by-forkful method in their toolbox of learning strategies.  Tackling a big job by breaking it down into smaller, manageable steps is not only effective, but it also makes learning more pleasurable. Hey, wait a minute!  Could it be that learning simply is more pleasurable when it is more effective? Or is ith the other way around? If Teresa Amibile and her colleagues are correct–and they have some pretty convincing evidence that they are–then making progress is the most powerful motivator of performance. Ergo, obvious progress in completing small steps increases learning while making it more pleasurable. That all sounds very nice in theory, but can I point to a real-world example? Absolutely. Enter Duolingo.duolingologo

Currently, I am trying to learn (or relearn, if you can call it that after forty years) German.  The clever folks at Viking River Cruises have seduced me with their ads on Downton Abbey, and my husband and I have tickets for this summer. Despite assurances that English is spoken everywhere, I really want to be able to read street signs and important messages. Besides, what fun is eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations if I can’t understand them? After reviewing far too many options for this little self-study project, some of them breathtakingly expensive, I settled on Duolingo. Duolingo is Apple’s 2013 iPhone app of the year (available for Android devices, too). This is the first time an educational app has received this distinction. And it’s free.

I’m surprised by how much I’m learning and delighted by how much fun I’m having. Here are some of DuoLingo’s tricks for making learning a pleasure:

  • The site is appeals to both the eye and the ear. The home page is colorful, and the simple, uncluttered graphics help to focus my attention. Intuitive auditory cues help keep me on track.
  • There are occasional surprises. I may be alarmed when I encounter a new word unexpectedly, but Duolingo usually offers enough contextual clues to let me solve the puzzle.
  • DuoLingo is relentless, and relentlessly positive.  The owl mascot sends me daily reminders to keep at it (I gave him permission to do this…it’s optional), and he tracks my progress within each lesson. Overall progress is displayed on a personal graph.


  • Skills that I have already mastered are interspersed within lessons presenting new concepts. I never have that “This is hopeless” feeling, because the lessons offer continual evidence that I have already learned a lot.
  • Dulingo switches learning styles continually: type in German, type in English, drag and drop, speak into a microphone.  I’m never bored.
  • Feedback is immediate.  I always know when I need to make adjustments or review.
  • The owl rewards me with tiny, seemingly inconsequential incentives. I earn small privileges, like the ability to change the owl’s costume. Silly but amusing.dulingo3
  • Best of all, the lessons are bite-sized. I often sit down planning to have just a little  snack of German, only to realize that I’ve been at it for half an hour.

Virtually all these tricks…and there are many others…could be translated into my anatomy and physiology classroom. The most important take-away: learning works best when learning is fun. Anyone care for a bite of elephant?


One comment on “Duolingo Serves Elephant Tapas

  1. Never having had any German, German 1 started out with trauma in college. Immediately we were taken to the language lab where someone began speaking bits of German over the loudspeaker intermittently with instructions to translate onto paper. This was mortifying. I have always thought of this in the vein of other scare tactics by professors the first week of class in college. The German lab, however, was in a class by itself for intimidation. Thankfully, the lab was followed by regular classes with normal introduction techniques of the time for grammar, and things went well and happily, leading me to take five semesters of German. However, until today—45 years later—my memory has been “They shouldn’t have done that. It was elitist and brutal.” Today a brand new thought came to mind after reading your blog, and I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before, but better late than never. The thought is this: the German department assumed what any new traveler might not anticipate—culture shock—the sudden environment in another country where everything, especially the language, is overwhelming and nothing like home. The German department had simulated culture shock. It’s amazing how a thing can be misinterpreted for so long! I’m elated to finally have a new frame of reference for it. Maybe someone mentioned culture shock before as the reason behind the lab, but I was still so much in shock, I didn’t see it.

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