Duolingo Dossier

So, let me start off by saying I have absolutely no personal or professional stake in Duolingo. In fact, I actually applied for a writing job for them once and never heard back…but that slight misstep (on their part) aside, I really love Duolingo, and for this month’s post, I’m going to tell you why.

Generally, I’m all about setting goals and challenges for the New Year, but alas, my goal this year is actually to have zero expectations whatsoever (we’ll see how that goes…). However, for those of you who haven’t been quite so jaded by 2020, January is still a great time to develop new habits, such as learning or practicing a foreign language. And for me, Duolingo has been an amazing way to keep that particular habit up for the last 446 days (yes, that’s my current streak number – woohoo!).

They seriously get me.

Of course, before I can get into the specifics of the app/website itself, I have to recount why learning a foreign language is such a great thing to do. In short: it does amazing things for your brain, it gives you new insights/perspectives, it can connect you to other people and cultures, it can be incredibly useful for travelling abroad, and it can be a fun way to diversify your skills and spend some time away from Netflix/social media, just to name a few of the major benefits. Even if you try Duolingo and hate it, I still recommend finding a language-learning system that works for you (in-person classes, one-on-one video chats, traditional workbooks, etc.) because there is really nothing like learning a foreign language!

Now back to Duolingo. One of the reasons I love this particular app and website so much is that they are completely free. It’s not the usual you get all the basics for free, but as you advance you need to pay or spend a certain amount of time on the app or whatever other hoops they’ve come up with. No, with Duolingo, you can access all the materials and completely finish as many courses as you’d like without ever having to pay. Of course, they do have a “Duolingo Plus” option, which allows you to work offline and skip any ads, but in my years and years of using Duolingo, I’ve never been tempted because, honestly, the ads are super minimal, no videos or anything, and who’s ever “offline” these days anyway? 

Another absolutely amazing thing about Duolingo is that there are a plethora of language options/courses to choose from (from Irish and Hebrew to Klingon and High Valyrian, no joke), and it’s super easy to switch back and forth between them. This is great if you’re like me and feel like French Fridays should be a thing. It’s also great because not only does it track and keep record of your progress, you can also test into a course and not have to start at the very beginning (for example, if you took Spanish in high school or gained some previous experience elsewhere). I’ve also mentioned a few times now that there is both an app and a website – they’re linked by your account, but they each have slightly different options, views, exercises, etc.

I also love that Duolingo allows you to set personal goals, for example, how much time you want to spend practicing each day. It also can send you reminder notifications or emails if, like me, you have trouble remembering if something happened early this morning or yesterday… Of course, these goals and reminders are completely optional and customizable, so you can turn them all off and live a more low-pressured life if you’d prefer. The lessons themselves are also extremely quick (or “bite-sized” as Duolingo touts), so it’s actually really easy to fit them into your schedule. I typically do mine while I’m waiting for something: the water to boil, the dog to pee, etc.

With Duolingo I also love the variety it offers. The courses/lessons are fun, and they aim to create useful yet entertaining sentences, scenarios, etc. but there are other features that are equally helpful and perhaps even more dynamic. I especially love going through the “stories”, which use the vocabulary and grammar you learn in the courses to create dialogues with a bit more context and substance. The stories and characters are quite entertaining – one of my favorites was when a character’s son thought his parents were lion tamers because he found a whip in their closet! Tell me that’s not an intriguing story to read in any language! Haha! Tucker and I have also been competing to complete all the different achievements (like earn 100 crowns, finish #1 in the leaderboard, etc.), which is another way to increase motivation and add another level to our learning. The Duolingo podcasts are also really fun (and free). They use both English and your target language to narrate longer, true stories related to life, culture, and the human experience.  

Everything is bigger online!

I also really love how intuitive the interface and activities are. I recently got my parents (who aren’t necessarily “app-people”) into it and no matter how tech savvy (or not) you are, it’s super easy to set up and use. It’s also not very grammar-y (which I realize is a plus for most people). The courses aim for immersion-like teaching (similar to Rosetta Stone), so you cover the major skills without having to sit through grammar instruction. There are “tips” that you can check at the beginning of each section, but they’re not necessary. Duolingo also takes a thematic approach and groups its sections according to topics like “greetings, restaurant, travel”, etc. which build on themselves as you progress.

Ultimately, it feels like playing a game. You complete the activities, you win gems, which you can then use to “buy” outfits for Duo (the owl mascot), or for fun courses like “idioms, dating”, etc. There are also “leagues” where you can see how you stack up against other learners, “wagers” where you can bet some of your hard-earned gems and go for double-or-nothing if you maintain a 7-day streak, etc. And oh, the streak! Probably my favorite of the stats they keep up with – it feels amazing to see that number climb and know that while I didn’t do much in 2020, at least I can say that I practiced a foreign language every. single. day. 🙂

So proud!

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that everything in Duolingo is take it or leave it; some people focus on the streak, others on the checkpoints, others pick it up and put down every few years or so; it’s really whatever flotter votre bateau. And even though Duolingo isn’t sponsoring this post (not yet anyway), I still really think you should give it a try, because for me it has been a simple, fun way to develop a skill that can bring tremendous benefits and entertainment, for free! So, try it out, and when you do, be sure to say “hola” to Duo for me!

Very Superstitious…

Non-scary black cat for me!

It’s October, a strange time of the year where spooky and supernatural things are dressed up in costumes and set out on suburban lawns. Truth be told, Halloween really isn’t my thing. I don’t like scary movies or unexpected visitors, and as I have chocolate in the house year-round, even the candy aspect is a bit of a miss. What I do like, however, is a nice dose of cultural quirks. Therefore, in lieu of ghosts and goblins, this month, I’m sharing my favorite international superstitions, all of which I’ve either heard from my students and/or have experienced myself abroad. Nothing creepy or crawly here, I promise!

The first superstition I thought of is a simple one that I experienced often when I was in China. Much like how we view the number seven as lucky and the number 13 as unlucky, the Chinese, too, have their superstitions regarding certain numbers. One of the strongest of these is about the number four. The number four is generally avoided in China. Elevators will often skip that floor number altogether, and any room numbers or phone numbers that happen to have too many inauspicious fours in them are often shunned as well. So, what makes the number four so unlucky in China? It’s actually the pronunciation of the word. In Mandarin the number four is pronounced [sì], which is unfortunately similar to the word [sǐ] or “death”.

EEK!

Speaking of death (it is Halloween after all…) in South Korea, a common superstition is that sleeping in a closed room with a running fan might actually kill you. This is such a common superstition that “fan death” has its own Wikipedia page. Although the alleged cause of death for these unexplained casualties has never been proven (or even agreed upon), warnings are still commonplace throughout the country. Bet you’ll never look at that unassuming appliance in the corner of your room the same way again!

Another death-related superstition I recently heard comes from Kenya, where owls are actually seen not as wise, candy-crunching mentors, but instead as harbingers of death. Seeing an owl in Kenya is believed to be a bad omen because it means that death will strike soon. Could be you, could be a family member, but you can be sure it’ll be close and quick. Even the local words used for “owl” are often avoided as they might bring about the birds themselves (and subsequently an untimely death). Perhaps Hedwig was the true cause of Harry’s continued misfortunes…

To be fair, they do look pretty menacing…

Bad luck is understandably a pretty common thing to be superstitious about, but my favorite superstitions involving bad luck are the ones that can be traced back to an event or custom in a culture’s history. One example of this would be the fact that it is considered unlucky in France to eat a baguette or loaf of bread that has been kept upside down. This belief is said to come from an old practice of leaving upside-down bread loaves out for the town executioner to pick up. No one would want to anger an executioner by accidently eating his bread, right?  

Safe to count now

Two other superstitions that come to mind when I think about bad luck come from Poland and Mexico. In Poland, we were told not to count any perogies that are being cooked. It’s simply bad luck to do so, and it may result in a ruined dinner. In Mexico, to escape a bit of bad luck, you should avoid sweeping at night because that, too, can bring a curse down on your house. Additionally, even when daytime sweeping in Mexico, you shouldn’t sweep the dirt straight out your front door, otherwise all your good luck will leave with it too. I knew I should have swept it under the rug instead!

If bad luck to you means losing money, then you shouldn’t put your purse or wallet on the floor. In Brazil (and many other countries) this action or even the accidental dropping of your purse/wallet could mean that you’re about to lose a lot of money or else have some other, serious financial difficulties.

In addition to good and bad luck, many other superstitions seem to be concerned with friends and enemies. For example, in Mongolia if you happen to touch someone’s foot or step on their shoe, you should immediately shake hands as a sign of good faith and friendship. If you do not, it means that conflict is on the horizon and that your relationship might be strained in the future. This superstition is so prevalent that even strangers who accidently bump feet will turn and shake hands to combat the negative consequences.

Hard to image much foot contact in these vast spaces!

In another shoe-related superstition, in Egypt, it is considered disrespectful to leave your shoes with their soles facing up. Stemming from ancient Egyptian beliefs, this can be seen as a slight against God, thus a possible omen of bad events (or in a mixing of religious terms, bad karma) heading your way. This superstition also seeps into etiquette because it is also seen as rude to sit with your soles pointing towards another person.

X

In Turkey, it’s sharp objects (or at least passing them to others) that can cause you to lose friends. For example, handing over a pair of scissors might been seen as the cause of a severed relationship in the future. It’s more prudent to set the sharp things on a nearby table than to hand them over directly.

On the other hand, if you find that you want to get rid of an unwelcomed friend, or a visitor that has over-stayed their welcome, in the Philippines, there is a superstition that says sprinkling salt around your house will cause a visitor to leave. I wonder if you throw salt over your shoulder at the same time will the results be magnified or canceled out?

So close to danger, and I didn’t even know!

Other common superstations revolve around mystical creatures and the magic they bring. In Peru, dragonflies are believed to be connected with sorcery and can bring evil to those whom they touch. Luckily, also in Peru, ladybugs are counters to the devious dragonflies, and they can indicate that good luck is on the way.

Some creatures, however, can be related to both good and bad superstitions, as with the Icelandic elves. These “hidden people” are woven into many beliefs and even holiday celebrations in Iceland. For example, there are stories about construction projects being halted because the plans didn’t take into account the feelings and habits of the local elves. They really must be consulted if you want things to run smoothly. I’ve also heard they throw some pretty awesome Christmas parties.

And there you have it! A well-rounded 13 international superstitions to keep you up at night wondering how many times you brought the bad luck on yourself with your unsuspecting actions. Perhaps this explains all the bad juju in 2020? Something to think about! Happy Halloween! 😉