Duolingo is the biggest language-learning app in the world and it counts its active users in the tens of millions. These users can include little children who are starting very grandly on the first words of a second language; refugees who are getting to grips with a new nation; and people with enough time on their hands to converse with each other in fictional languages from certain television programmes. For most of these users, Duolingo will be free, or at least in the sense that they will pay for it through watching adverts. I have been enrolled on its French, German and Spanish courses, since visiting Tunis and Berlin in 2016, and Santiago de Compostela in 2019.
This app always makes linguists huff and puff. For them, its attractiveness is purely presentational and there is no superior learning experience behind the slick fun. The user indeed learns mostly through rote, without the practical immersion that is required to make any headway in a language. The quintessential Duolingo experience involves receiving the artificial impression that you possess some fluency, up until you try out your new language on a native speaker, whereupon you freeze in bewilderment and the whole thing shatters like a chandelier that is made from sugar glass.
To criticise Duolingo on these grounds is probably unfair if your starting point is English. For native-English speakers, immersion in another language will be forever a foreign land. People from Spain, for example, tend to react with hostility whenever I propose speaking with them in their native language. It is rather as though an aristocrat is volunteering to work on a building site, just for the novelty of the experience. I have been born with the silver spoon of English in my mouth, whereas they have had to spend many long, hard years learning English out of necessity, as their ticket to the European middle class. My ungraciousness here is perhaps not so different to the traditional British shirking of second languages, which had caused so much of capitalism to become English-speaking in the first place.
Duolingo Stories were introduced in 2017, to enable a more naturalistic learning within the app. Each story describes a situation that is usually comic or at least never greatly serious; each will take you about five minutes to read; and each is dotted with questions and tasks to check that you are keeping abreast of what is happening. The same stories feature in the German, French and Spanish courses, although the German course is today missing a significant body of around ninety stories that were added to the French one this year. The French course is missing eighty or so stories that are available in Spanish.
Because it does not pay for Duolingo to delete any of its content, it is possible to track the stories from the first uncertain experiments to the buoyancy of a developed and increasingly original product. Actually some early stories have been deleted, but this is only because they were deemed to be inappropriate for the app’s younger users. In the eerie “2042,” for example, it dawns on a ghost that she is no longer alive.
Some of the early stories feature generic fantasy or sci-fi settings; in “The Duke of Bastille” we are walked through a ball from a Jane Austen novel whilst in “The First Assignment” and “The Second Assignment” it is the entry-level clichés of the espionage genre. There is a general relief whenever these stories are droll and pithy: the titular gentleman from “The Worst Bank Robber” would be the best clown at a children’s birthday party; whilst silly dogs are a faithful source of fun in “Fi Fi Needs A Room” and “The Day You Left.”
The trouble begins when these early stories try to get their characters to stick. “Wild Ride” and “Skydive” field two flatmates or “colocs” named Maxime and Emile, one of whom is reckless and the other dorkishy unadventurous. This is never a happy partnership; Emile’s unwillingness to be roped into Maxime’s dares is at no point ever funny; and we might conclude that Emile’s life would be vastly improved if Maxime simply fucked off. In the sinister “Skydive,” Maxime gives up trying to manipulate Emile into jumping out of a plane, when consent has been firmly denied, and he instead just turfs him outs. This looks even more like rape than rape itself. Some version of the pair returns in “It’s Three In The Morning,” but they are now called “Max and Ernst” and Ernst is significantly more assertive.
I don’t think that we ever get to properly know our way around Charlotte, an old biddy who is sometimes up to mischief and at others gaily senile and obsessed with hunting UFOs. In “Sugarloaf” she is empathetic and suddenly a confidant. Her character might be clarified more vividly if she was sent off on more adventures, but the writers appear to have parked her for now.
It is a shame that a similar abandonment has befallen the highly-promising Jabari, a dashing, monocle-sporting “adventurer” who teams up a timid civil servant, Adisa, in “The Poachers.” Although Jabari has all the glamour of the conventional safari hero, his haughty disapproval of Adisa makes him often sound like an aunt in a PG Wodehouse novel.
During these early stories, the characters would inhabit a single narrative that was chopped into several “chapters.” Charlotte, Maxime and Emile were exceptions in that they were brought back and exposed to new situations (along with one or two other characters whose individuality does not really mark or contribute to the stories). With the newest stories, however, a decision has been made to throw in our lot with a full-time dramatis personae. Duolingo Stories would in effect become something like a soap opera from traditional television, or else a brand new life would be discovered for the soap opera within a language app.
The results never resemble a British soap opera, which are set in anachronistic working-class communities and where the melodrama is exaggerated to such an absurd degree that all of the characters must feel insane. This is instead one of those more light-hearted, feel-good soap operas, from California or Australia, where the sun is always shining over a utopia of picnics and barbecues. In Duolingo Stories the setting is a tenement, in a place somewhere that could be anywhere. The action is realistic – commonplace situations that could occur in your life and mine – but they are always tilted gently out of reality through a cartoonish humour.
Eddy and Junior are the stars of this show. Eddy’s entire life is a strategy to organise infinite dates and he also works on the side as a gym teacher. These “dates” can never become a serious relationship, in the same way that Sisyphus will never see the top of the hill, due to some mishap in which the woman always gets offended and flounces off. We can recognise that Eddy is a lovely guy and so the failure of this unending cycle of females to properly appreciate him is inexplicable to us. It is true that he is unable to cook a square meal and that he sometimes makes tragic sartorial decisions. Junior, his eight-year-old son, is always on hand to commiserate and point him in the right direction.
Como se llama? I guess that Junior is also called Eddy, since Junior is rarely a given name. As a precocious but fun-loving schoolchild, Junior is, of course, the character within this world who is most likely to use Duolingo. Maybe he represents Duolingo’s best attempts to picture its own intended users. There is an ever-present danger with Junior that the stories will degenerate into something along the lines of Kids Say the Darndest Things. In one story, for instance, Junior discovers a whip in Eddy’s closet and, in the ungluing marshmallow cuteness of his innocence, he assumes his father to be a lion tamer.
Yet our ultimate perspective upon Junior is the difficulty of being his parent. Junior is actually quite rounded and multi-dimensional: for every occasion when he is delightful, there is another when he is cranky and irritating. We come to subsequently admire Eddy’s majestic calm and the wondrous size of his patience. We can sense whenever Eddy might be near to snapping and it confirms the greatness in his soul when he never does so.
Next up in the life of the tenement are Zari and Lily, two teenaged girls who are still at school but who are independent enough to drive cars and do shop work. Lily is malodorous and a Goth but she is as good as gold beneath the affected aggression. Zari is a simpering princess but only when things are going her way. These two are besties and more or less identical beneath their chosen postures and costumes. They have been essentially grafted over the space where the failed friends, Maxime and Emile, were erased.
Lucy, a grandmother, is a libertarian and her granddaughter Lin is always disconcerted that the older woman is the one who is living life to the full. Oscar, a pompous art teacher, lives nearby and any story can be reliably brought to a suitable conclusion by wheeling him out to rhapsodically proclaim that some silly or unlikely thing is “art.” But Oscar is human too; he is melancholy, or even depressed, and apparently a celibate. Vikram and Priti are the only couple in the stories but we only ever visit them to observe small, affectionate incidents in their happy marriage. Bea, Lin’s friend, makes up the numbers and she ticks various leftover identity boxes.
These people are always hobnobbing with each other in their neighbourhood but they are all otherwise stuck at a point in their lives where they are not moving. It is a paradox that within a language app, where our own progress is being continually monitored and celebrated, many of the stories that are being told are of lives where there are no sudden leaps forward.
Dating – an apparently universal ritual that is submitted to by Eddy, Lucy, Bea, Lin and Zari (and even Junior) – comes to involve cyclical preparations and disappointments and a constant returning to the start. This grows most haunting in Eddy’s case. We know, without being ever told this, that Eddy’s wife and Junior’s mother has died. This lady is never mentioned in the stories, let alone named. A series of synonymous potential substitutes comes and goes, melting and evaporating and leaving no trace, like language courses that a fickle student is unable to ever complete.
Duolingo’s soap opera becomes so compulsive because we are always pressing on in search of tiny morsels of new information about the characters, or even the mildest developments in their lives, whilst being simultaneously aware that they are fixed like gnats within amber. In one ostensible swerve, Eddy inherits a property from his Uncle Edouard but he and Junior soon whimsically abandon it, having decided that they have been left a tumbledown house merely as a prank. Their normal apartment is waiting as always, at home back at the start.
One suspects that Duolingo’s biggest influx of users came about as a result of the Syrian civil war and the consequent waves of migration to Europe. This soap opera in which the nuclear family has been hunted to virtual extinction and traditional minorities have everywhere multiplied to the max has thus a double relevance. On the one hand it is prescriptive: if you are using Duolingo to learn a European language, then the deal is that you are expected to swallow Europe’s progressive values as well. You are not meant to find it incongruous when Junior’s favourite sport turns out to be ballet dancing or in any way remarkable when four out of five of the women from these stories turn out to be lesbian. You are not in Aleppo anymore, after all.
On the other hand, the world within these stories might also sensitively reflect the disruption to the nuclear family that typifies the refugee experience. Many refugees will identify with Eddy, a man who is haplessly struggling to bring up a young son by himself and whose missing partner is never spoken of. Many might also see the truth in Lucy, a resourceful matriarch who has a granddaughter but whose children are missing and never spoken of. Although all of these characters are potentially at home in any European town or city, they could be equally refugees who had met in a camp and who are being now housed in charitable accommodation. They are all, as a social class, precarious but aspirational, grateful for the things that they have and plodding on.
No writers are ever credited for these stories and I cannot find any cast names to put to the characters. If as many people had watched Eddy in a soap opera as they had learned with him in Duolingo Stories, then it is likely that the actor who is responsible would be a multi-millionaire and worshipped by millions of fans.
Finally, a word upon the owl.
Once upon a time there was a cheeky green owl who was the only character in Duolingo. He sometimes still features in the language exercises, where there are comically boastful tributes to his splendidness, but there is no reference to him in the stories at all. This is strange because the stories always end with an animation in which one of the characters is seen partying with Duo, suggesting that they are on the most familiar of terms with him. Yet the characters never find occasion to mention their acquaintance with a green owl at any point during the humdrum incidents in their stories.
One might conclude that these ten people are in a conspiracy in which they commune with a magical creature, perhaps down at a secret altar in the basement of their shared tenement. Is Duo a hallucination or some astrally-projected tulpa of theirs or, alternatively, are they visions that are appearing in a dream of Duo’s?
Duo is the only character throughout this language app who never speaks. He does not even possess vocal chords, as far as I am aware, although I somehow imagine that if he spoke he would have the squeaky elocution of the classic Mickey Mouse (visually, however, he is more closely related to Dr Seuss’ Grinch). But of course, in presiding over a language app, Duo must speak every language simultaneously. He must surpass or transcend all human understanding, as the most linguistically complete available being that there is.
This is no doubt why he is green and an owl. He was presumably an ordinary person once but today, in his wisdom, he has discarded his original human form. One might theorise that Duo is something like the premonitory glimpse of a future Junior – that Junior’s real name is Duo, essentially – and that the only thing standing between the respective stages that they are each at in their lives is forty or so unlearned languages.