Serious fun

From the realm of behavioral science and nudges – it’s Duolingo, the free language-learning platform rooted in gamification. It has 25 languages available and 200 million users worldwide.

A problem with online learning is the high dropout rate. Everyone goes into it with the best of intentions, but then life happens and you don’t finish your course.  Duolingo (whose CEO is Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon) uses gamification to keep its learners engaged.

Gamified experiences typically include elements such as badges, points, leaderboards, and progress-trackers. You can find all of those elements in Duolingo.

Users set daily goals for themselves and, if they meet those goals, start accumulating what is called “The Streak.”  This brings people back to the game every day – if you have a streak of 37 straight days of learning, for example, you don’t want to break that streak and start over again.  (Even though it really doesn’t matter. There are no consequences. But you see the size of that streak on your screen and it is heartbreaking when it goes away.) 

Duolingo also lets you measure your progress easily, with lessons arranged on a virtual skill tree.

Another gamification technique is the use of non-monetary currency (the lingot). Among other things, you can buy a “weekend amulet” with this currency, which enables you to skip a day of learning on the weekend and still keep your streak intact.

Duolingo also offers badges for a variety of activities – perfect scores on a test, winning a “wager,” for achieving a certain level of fluency, etc.  And as with all good gamifications, there is a social component. You both compete with others to get badges and lingots…but you also cooperate with others to translate texts, building a sense of community while also helping yourself climb a virtual leaderboard.

One user calls it “a fantastic language learning experience, neatly wrapped in a gamified package.”

And best of all, the app does what it promises. According to one study, 34 hours spend on Duolingo equals one semester of university-level classroom instruction.  A nice marriage of form and function.