The Terracotta Warriors would no doubt fare very well on the Duolingo leaderboards.

Battleground Duolingo : Sun Tzu’s Art of Language Learning

Duolingo aficionados cannot have not have failed to miss the recent frenzy over competitive leaderboards. Perhaps you have – no doubt luckily – escaped the red mist and hidden sensibly away from the hordes. Instead, you might have recognised it in the glazed eyes of language learning friends and family who have succumbed.

Yes, Duolingo is merciless: it has been taking brave, eager, wide-eyed language explorers and ruthlessly transforming them into gladiators, one against the other.

The unintended consequence of all this is a new tribe of learner. It has spawned a vast band of Duo warriors. And warriors have one aesthetic: the Art of War. It’s no stretch to claim that Duolingo league tables have given rise to a code of conduct worthy of Sun Tzu himself.

Those tempting charms and glinting jewels wove their tentacles around me tightly, I must admit. So here, I share what I have learnt of this dark art. And, on a more serious note, how the whole shebang can help – or hinder, if we’re not careful – our language learning!

Duolingo: The Art of strigine strategy

Strategy is everything. What kind of warrior are you? There are three key tactics in the path to strigine victory. (Aye. I had to look that word up too.)

Runaway train

The runaway train is the blunt instrument of linguistic military tactics. It demands quick action. Straight off the mark on a Monday morning, the warrior owlet will steam ahead a few thousand points, leaving competitors scrabbling in the dust.

Fighters will have their go-to weapons at hand: the expert topic they can test on repeatedly to bank easy points. They will only switch to more complex instruments – higher level topics – when they are at a safe distance.

Keep looking over your shoulder, though. Those sneaky co-combatants will usually give valant chase. There is nothing more panic-inducing than seeing your closest challengers clock up the points at a rate of knots. Especially if you are stuck somewhere, unable to use your phone for a while…

Duolingo Runaway Train

Duolingo Runaway Train (usernames have been hidden to protect the innocent!)

Lurking with the pack

No time for a relentless sprint? Then lurk with the rest of the pack until the time comes to strike.

This strategy involves keeping pace with the frontrunners, jostling and leapfrogging daily. The sly player will hang back in third or fourth, so as not to induce phone notification panic in the unsuspecting leader. Of course, that is for the dogs on Sunday, as the whole stage is set up for an epic battle for first place.

The upside? Less time-intensive means less battle-weary so soon. And the slow creep will drive your opponents crazy. But be prepared for vocab carnage on Sunday evening!

Duolingo Lurking With The Pack

Lurking With The Pack

The surprise attack

Everybody loves an underdog. Except Duolingo users you unleash this strategy on!

The surprise attacker keeps back a fair distance, biding time at the bottom of the table. It’s an easy week for this Duolingo paladin, merely keeping pace with the minimum amount of effort per day. That way, nobody suspects…

Suddenly, on Sunday night, your powers are unleashed. You thrash away at the keyboard or touch-screen for hours, rising like a phoenix to overtake your clueless adversaries. You were down – but never out.

The price you pay? Well, your whole Sunday, I’m afraid. Because this warrior ain’t going anywhere while there are several thousand points to make up. But it’s worth it to grin from the top of victory mountain. Right?

I just hope there isn’t a runaway train at the top of your leaderboard…

Basking in the glory

And there you have it. A battle plan any self-respecting warlord would have been proud of.

But of course, the warrior is also advised to take a large pinch of salt with every pre-fight meal. Duolingo battleboards are joyful, gamified fun for everyone invested in the system, but not to be taken too seriously.

The question on every fighter’s lips: do they actually work?

Everything in moderation

Well, competitive league-tabling is a bit of fun at best, and nigglingly passive aggressive at worst. The watchful, always-on mindset it fosters is a hoot, but it can get a little fatiguing and time-consuming in the long run. That goes especially for naturally competitive people, whose buttons are furiously pressed by all this. (Yup, me.)

That said, the approach is a wonderful motivator for ensuring very regular practice. But it does require discipline on the part of the user, as the format may encourage some poor habits. The most time-wasting of these is going for easy points, rather than slogging away at difficult units for the same gain. The best way to beat this temptation is to impose house rules on yourself, such as only mining points from higher-level topics.

Seeking points in new places

On the other hand, the hunger for points fosters some very good habits, too, such as dabbling. Points pressure makes it doubly rewarding to dip into the first lessons of a brand new language. This is not least because initial lessons on Duolingo tend to be rather short, and yield a speedy cache of 10-15 points per shot.

Elementary Turkish, for example, has been a saving grace for me this week. Teşekkürler! Beyond the helping hand up a few rungs, a dip into Turkish might just have given me enough of a taste to keep going with it at some point.

Talking of quick point gains, there is also the incentive to dive back into stronger, but less-practised languages. That would be Spanish and French for me, and golding up my Duolingo trees for that pair has become a side goal in itself. A focus on your already proficient languages can also avoid the cognitive dissonance you feel at seeing your developmental languages many levels about them! Let’s get that Duolingo profile matching your real-life skills, eh?

Need for speed

Finally, success in these competitions is often about speed. And speed-translating is an excellent route to building muscle memory in your developing languages. Challenging the brain to deliver an accurate answer within seconds is handy training for routine quick thinking. Because being fast can be handy, both in Duolingo battles and real life, when we often have to seize upon the correct turn of phrase on the spot.

Duolingo have once again played a blinder with addictive learning, turning us all into lingua-warriors. With a bit of healthy moderation, learning this Art of War could build some excellent new habits!

A short study break may do your brain the world of good between the book marathons. (Image from freeimages.com)

The returner learner effect : how a study break can be a language learning boost

Brains are mysterious things. Sometimes, they seem to display most counter-intuitive behaviour. Just take the study break, for example. Give yourself a few months off a language, and you might expect to be a bit rusty as a returner learner. But sometimes, on your return, you get that joyful feeling that it never went away. And somehow, could it feel even more solid than before?

It’s more common than you think.

Budding polyglots, by their nature, experience the returner learner effect a lot. Since it is rarely a good idea to study more that one or two languages at once, there can be stretches where any language aficionado is not actively working on several of them. Often, there may not even be opportunities to speak them regularly.

Some maintenance is essential, of course. And we can keep things ticking over with a weekly tactical schedule that at least gives a nod to all of our projects. But it is almost inevitable that some languages will be put into a deeper sleep than others.

Software-Switching

Never fear. I actually like to think that we are made to use our brains like this. Short-term, or working memory, for example, can only hold around seven items for processing at any one time. On a longer-term scale, learnt skills, like languages, are also processing-hungry programs that cannot all be run altogether at full capacity at the same time.

Computer analogies, although not always perfect, can be neatly apt ways to think about the brain. Just today, this nostalgic thread about early 1980’s, disk-based computing bubbled up into my Twitter timeline. What better metaphor for the nature of our active and passive languages? There is certainly an element of software-switching going on when I prepare to ‘load up’ a language I haven’t used in a while. Although it’s not quite “Insert Russian: Disk 4”, it can feel like some gear-shifting is required to switch a language back on.

Let sleeping languages lie…

For various reasons, I had parked my Norwegian in the cerebral software archive a few months ago. For one thing, I had enjoyed a couple of trips to Oslo already by last Summer. Now it was time for other plans, other countries, and other languages – at least for a while.

Not only that, but the perennial polyglot itch was making itself felt. I wanted to try new things, and reach new levels with my other projects. My Norwegian was at a decent level; it could withstand a little rest.

Of course, rest should never mean oblivion. Language skills are precious, and it is essential to have a maintenance plan for all of them. Optioned Anki decks is a favoured way to finely control the maintenance all of those you care about keeping, for example. In this way, maintenance can chug along in a fairly low-key fashion.

As long as you do something, those disks should only require occasional dusting to stay serviceable.

And so it was in my case. Along with occasionally reading the news at nrk.no, I kept my Norwegian on a low boil since the end of last Summer.

…until their day comes again

Ultimately, the time comes when sleeping languages grow impatient for the limelight again. My own travel plans had finally come full circle again, settling on Norway (a more irresistible return destination after each trip, believe me – it’s never too long before that scenery exerts its pull!). The time seemed right to dust off the Bokmål.

When bringing your languages out of storage, you need a strategy – something to help load those programs back into memory.

My own, personal favourite is to kickstart passive use via a podcast blitz.

I chose my old favourite Norwegian podcast to stage a return: the fantastic Språkteigen by NRK. It is a real gem for language lovers with a bit of norsk.

In fact, I had been putting off listening to the show for a while. There was a fear that I might have slipped back further than I thought. Would I understand a single word? Should I have been spending more time on Norwegian maintenance? To ease myself back in gently, I selected a low-pressure time – listening on the treadmill at the gym – and clicked play on the programme.

I had nothing to worry about. I was hooked by the subject matter from the first few lines, and zoned right back into it as I listened and ran. By the end, I’d jogged for thirty minutes without realising it, and felt boosted by how much I understood.

It almost seemed like I could understand more than back when I was actively studying.

The choice of material is crucial, of course. I chose something I’d missed listening to.  I wanted to understand.

The returner learner effect

That feeling of being better after a break is down to a number of elements:

Their effects are felt most keenly just in those days when we return to the language. If you select your return material wisely, you can maximise the motivation that provides. Feed on the renewed confidence. In a subject area that demands so much self-confidence compared to others, it is a rare chance to say: yes, I am not bad at this at all!

Building back active production

Of course, a dose of realism is also required. In my case, I had spent six months not speaking Norwegian at all. The extent of my Bokmål use had been completely passive. While the ‘background task’ effect of the brain may well benefit my active production of Norwegian in the long run, I must still acknowledge that work needs to be done to build back my speaking confidence.

But the lesson here is that all those hours of hard work were not in vain. The brain has the learner’s back. In those quiet months, it works on, patiently distilling that mass of material into a solid skill – one that was ready to load back into memory when needed.

Like all effects, the post-study-break boost wanes as the reality of the study regime kicks in again. You will feel challenged once more. That said, it would be worrying not to feel that way. To make a comparison to working out at the gym, it is often when the muscles feel most taxed that the builder makes the greatest gains.

However transitory the returner learner effect, seize upon it to ride a fresh wave of confidence after a study break. Maximise it by choosing media that you know you will respond positively to. Let it reassure you that your brain is on your side, whatever tricky conundrums language learning throws your way!