What happens when you pour your heart into learning a language on service X, then service X mothballs the resource? It’s a situation many Welsh learners found themselves in this week, as Duolingo announced an indefinite pause to further development of its Welsh course.
The immediate question is where do these learners go? There are other Welsh courses, of course, like the excellent materials at LearnWelsh.cymru. But the Duolingo announcement begs a further question: how do these learners take their progress with them? Progress data, the result of weeks, months, years of hard learning work, is locked into Duolingo’s proprietary system.
Now, you can already request your personal data from Duolingo. The Duolingo Data Vault is definitely a welcome addition in data transparency, allowing you to access personal data records the site holds on you. But crucially, language-based progress is missing. There’s nothing to say what you’ve studied, item for item. That means there’s no way to pick up where you left off elsewhere, with a true record of where you are.
No wonder users feel a bit stuck inside a course consigned to gather dust.
Interoperability and Language Learning
It all sounded very familiar after tech activist Cory Doctorow’s recent discussion of open internet practices in The Internet Con. This quick read (well worth a look for anyone invested in apps and services – ie., all of us) bemoans the walled gardens that Big Tech firms have become. They’re great places to be, when they work for/with us. But when they suddenly change at the whim of execs, the lack of interoperability – standards or conventions that allow you to use data from one service on another – leaves us stranded and at their mercy.
Don’t like a recent update? Tough, you’ll just have to stay, or start from scratch on another service.
It’s not for a lack of standards. Language learning platforms have long used industry-wide formats to allow interoperability. Take the plain old CSV (comma-separated value) spec. You’ve long been able export your Anki deck in this plain text format, and import it into another service like Quizlet or Educandy.
Not to be too hard on Duolingo (we love it really), there’s a clear counterargument to allowing full export of full vocabulary and phrase lists, as with Anki and Quizlet decks. The full complement of learning text is the result of lots of hard work on company time; it’s a copyrighted resource just as a course book is.
Opening the Duolingo Garden Wall
But when it’s tied to user progress, it becomes something else; a personal record of items we’ve committed to memory. Other programs export this as a matter of course. Anki, for example, will export frequency and accuracy data alongside vocabulary item entries. It shouldn’t be too hard to export this subset of Duolingo material in a universal format that could be loaded without fuss into an app like Anki.
Duolingo might well fret about losing users if the effort costs of leaving were reduced like this. No big tech corp is under obligation to organise its data in a way that helps users migrate. But you can imagine a world of interoperable ‘take your data with you’ standards to have a double-edged benefit.
First off, it could incentivise Duolingo to strive for constant betterment, to be additive rather than reductive in its updates. The race would be to the top, rather than the bottom, to maintain a winning app for all. There’d be an open door, but nobody would feel the need to defect (or the resentment that they can’t).
Likewise, there’s a general benefit even if the resources simply aren’t there for a Welsh continuation on Duo. Course migration standards would allow smaller companies to step in and fill in the gaps. Duo could focus on its core projects and nobody would feel linguistically homeless. And, of course, if Duolingo offered the missing service again in future, it would be easy to move right back.
Perhaps it’s time to make a request of our beloved owl in the name of an open web for linguists. As the trailblazer that you are, could you be a leader in open standards, prising ajar the door to these walled gardens?