A thousand days of Duolingo
The psychology of streaks as a tool for learning, a student perspective.
On the eleventh of October 2022, my Duolingo streak hit 1000. For almost two and three-quarters years, I had completed a lesson — in either Italian or Arabic — (pretty much) every day. I have completed daily Duolingo lessons for longer than Bennifer’s first romance and for longer than Julius Caesar was at the head of the Roman Empire; if a child was born the same day as my streak, it would now be learning how to construct phrases. I wish that I could say that this intense commitment was purely born of a passion for learning, but truth be told, there’s something else spurring me on. Seeing my streak grow every day brought me a sense of satisfaction. Getting a notification at 10pm saying my streak was at risk made me panic.
Realistically, missing a day or two of Duolingo would not massively stunt my learning. And yet, I have come to love this streak as if it is a child. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering: why am I like this?
Let’s start from the beginning. I, just as many others do, picked up Duolingo to maintain a language I no longer had the chance to formally study. I studied Italian from year 7 to year 11 before dropping it because I had too many units for the HSC, and then Arabic in my first semester of university as an elective. Without any contexts in which I could organically practice either of these languages, such as talking to native speakers, I turned to Duolingo to try to retain what I had learnt.
As a part of my research for this article, I spoke with many students, who largely had the same experience as me: using Duolingo as a substitute for time- and resource-intensive language maintenance, such as studying it in a class or immersing oneself in a speech community.
Others used it to study for something outside of classes, like revision for exams, travelling overseas, and even, in one sweet example, learning a significant other’s first language.
To maintain language skills, however, simply starting to learn isn’t enough. You need to practise your skills regularly to keep and improve them. As such, there are multiple features built into the app to encourage users to keep coming back.
There’s a weekly leaderboard, where the points you’ve earned from completing lessons are compared to other language-learners’, complete with different “leagues” that you can climb into or drop out of by gaining points. There are notifications which remind you to practice, which Duolingo cultivate and target to increase the chances of you responding to them. There are challenges, often based on completing a certain number of lessons, through which you can win in-app prizes like “gems” or “streak freezes”. And, most saliently to me, there’s your streak: a cumulative total of all the days in a row you’ve completed a lesson.
I have stints where I complete Duolingo lessons — sometimes multiple a day — out of the sheer joy of learning language. It is something that I really, earnestly love. But on days where I am busy, or tired, or occupied by something entirely other than joy for language, there’s one thing that keeps me returning to the app, and that is the streak. As such, I became concerned that perhaps, instead of using Duolingo to learn, I was using it to scratch some other sort of itch; one that gave me a hit of dopamine with every increased integer.
I spoke to Professor Alex Blasczynski, a clinical psychologist who specialises in addictive-type behaviours (he also uses Duolingo, to study Russian). He was very quick to reassure me that no, I was not addicted to my Duolingo streak. “Addiction is pursuing some sort of repetitive or pleasurable goal despite the presence of adverse consequences,” he told me, or in less academic words: “gratifying a need despite the crap that it causes in your life.”
In Blasczynski’s research into video game addiction, he has observed people who pour endless time and money into games, purely to climb leaderboards. Given that I am not sacrificing much beyond a few minutes of my day, I am far from falling into this category.
Instead, he suggested that users are motivated by something else: fear of losing something we’ve acquired. “You’ve worked hard towards getting a thousand streak, and if you then end up losing that particular streak, that’s regretful,” he explained. That is to say: I’m not motivated by seeing my streak go up, but rather by a fear of seeing it drop down to zero. “The regret is emotionally worse than the pleasure of winning the next points.”
Professor Blasczynski pointed to other instances where this fear is weaponised, such as Frequent Flyers points, to keep people engaging in a product. Losing a status that you think you’ve worked hard to attain is upsetting, and people will often act to maintain statuses, even if they make very little tangible difference to their life.
To come clean: there have been days where I have not completed a lesson in Duolingo. Each time, I’ve had a “streak freeze” — which I “purchased” using the points I’d acquired in my lessons — to prevent me losing my whole streak. One time, after a particularly long night, I opened the app to see the streak counter reset to zero. A teary-eyed Duo (the green owl mascot) informed me that my 800-something streak had been lost. I wish I could say otherwise, but I started to cry. Looking back, this reaction was likely partly the fault of the alcohol I’d been consuming instead of doing my daily lesson, but it really did feel awful.
Not only had I lost something I’d spent over two years cultivating, but I was struck by the realisation that I simply did not want to start another streak. No matter how much joy I associated with language, the knowledge that I was two years away from getting back to the point that I had been at minutes ago was so thoroughly deflating that it sapped me of all will to start again. Luckily for me, the zero had been a glitch. Duo greeted me the following day with a “Phew!” and a reminder to restock my streak freezes. My three-digit streak was back. But that lingering feeling, the knowledge that my obsession with a streak is greater than my love of language, has not left me.
In my conversations with other students, streaks are polarising. Some consider them a good incentive to keep using apps like Duolingo; my friend Kritika described getting a “weird sense of satisfaction” from seeing her Duolingo, Wordle, or Snapchat streaks increase, but admits that she uninstalled Duolingo “out of spite” after breaking her streak. Another friend, Branko, thought streaks are only effective in the short term — “at zero days, a ten day streak seems like an achievement. But say you’re at 80 days, at that point, getting to 90 seems trivial.”
Others, like Nida, said that streaks are most effective when they’re longer, suggesting that the harder streaks seem to restart, the more you feel compelled to continue. Imogen suggested that, even though streaks may be slightly manipulative, having a streak on Duolingo is worthwhile, as it’s proof of the effort you’re putting into learning a language, which seems like a net positive.
Many, however, think that streaks are actively bad. “You can lose focus on the main goal, which is to learn a new language,” Drew said. This partially accounts for why the prospect of losing a streak was so demotivating for me: “my motivation is learning my partner’s language, and I have to remember that, otherwise I’ll fall into a slump again.”
Oskar suggests the mechanism isn’t even effective from a company’s perspective, as it encourages users to engage with the app to the bare minimum extent. Even though I go through phases of doing multiple lessons a day, I’ve found that I really only complete one lesson — the bare minimum to increase my streak — most days, and on especially hectic days, I’ll specifically choose to complete an Arabic lesson, as I’m less far advanced in that course and the content is less complex than my Italian lessons. And yet, despite all of this, my streak has single-handedly kept me learning, almost every day, for almost three years. Surely, that has to be a good thing.
Duolingo is not the only platform that uses streaks. For many of us, Snapchat was our first experience with an app that promoted holding a streak. Streaks are, fairly transparently, a marketing tool to keep you using products, weaponising your fear of losing them against you. With that being said, I don’t think that makes them inherently evil. I have recently downloaded an app called Habit, which tracks my completion of healthy habits. I use it to log how much water I drink, how often I water my plants, and how often I remember to vacuum. Unbeknownst to me when I downloaded the app, it, too, lets you hold streaks for completed habits.
This has been excellent for me. I have consistently been completing helpful habits — making my bed, increasing my step count — because of how salient my commitment to them is to me. Is it a gimmick to keep me on the app? Maybe. Has it tangibly made my life better? Yes, actually. And despite the emotional toll it may take on me, I would say the same is true for my Duolingo streak.
In the time I have held my streak, my world has completely changed. It began on the 15th of January, 2020. I had not heard of Coronavirus at that point in time. In that time, I haven’t had a chance to so much as think about travelling to Italy or an Arabic country to immerse myself in the languages. I would not have retained as many of my skills as I have without Duolingo.
What’s more, these last few years have been pretty shit. The joy I get from learning, from language, and from keeping my streak has been valuable to me. Maybe I’m the victim of an incessant green owl, or maybe I’m dedicating my time to a pursuit that is meaningful to me. I hope to keep up my streak well into the future, but even if I don’t, I hope to retain the joy I feel while learning enough to keep it up, even if the counter is reset to zero.