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!

Re-learning the American Way

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Western culture = beer on the porch

Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.

 

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Those tacos tho…

Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”

 

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Why no WeChat Pay?

Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.

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Even more difficult when on the wrong side of the road!

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Definitely an American…

 

Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.

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Here’s to more Chinese adventures!

Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!

 

Chinese Food: Where’s the Sesame Chicken?!

Tucker and I used to order Chinese food fairly often when we lived in Atlanta. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it’s utterly delicious, but as I’m what I like to call a “safe eater” (read: picky), I only ever ordered Sesame Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, or some other entirely Americanized dish. However, now I find myself living in the Chinese food homeland (allegedly), and since I have yet to see anything remotely resembling those two stand-bys, I’m going to share some of my new favorite Chinese dishes. REAL Chinese food!

But First, About Meals: Mealtimes in China are quite similar to what I’m used to from the US – an early, light breakfast before work, lunch around noon, and a larger, warm dinner in the early evening. A little less familiar is the utter lack of liquids. I’ve previously mentioned the Chinese affinity for drinking hot water throughout the day, but what I haven’t yet described is the fact that it’s rare for locals to have a drink (of anything) while eating. Occasionally they’ll have a small bowl of soup or broth, which they use as a drink substitute, but most people eat OR drink rather than what I previously thought was universal, eat AND drink.

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“Broth drink” with chao mian (fried noodles)

Another thing that stands out is the absence of sweet options. I’m used to having the option of a sweet breakfast and almost always being offered dessert after dinner, but these phenomena are rarer in China. Instead of cereal, pop-tarts, waffles, etc. we see people eating noodles and pork buns on their way to work/class. As a fan of leftovers for breakfast and a former noodletarian, I love that there’s no judgment for eating noodles multiple times a day! However, I do miss the occasional dessert. Sometimes in a vain effort to satisfy my sweet tooth, I’ll pick up a dessert-like-thing from Wal-mart or the campus store, and nine times out of ten, I’m disappointed by a bite of red bean instead of chocolate. Our Chinese friends swear red bean is a dessert (and a sweet one at that), but coming from the US, where processed sugar is pretty much its own category in the food pyramid, I haven’t found much that’s up to my “sweet” standard.

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Family style eating in China

What we usually think of as “Family Style” serving/eating is another prominent characteristic of Chinese meals. It’s fairly rare to go out with a group (even a small group) and each order one individual dish. Instead everyone agrees on 8-10 dishes and shares everything, often at a table with a large lazy-susan in the middle for easy reaching. Tucker loves this way of dining out because he gets to try many different dishes all at one meal, and, of course, I don’t like it for the same reason. Have I mentioned it’s really difficult to be a picky eater in a foreign country?

 

Regional Cuisine: Very early on we were told about the different regional cuisines of China, and have since discovered that many restaurants will choose a specialty and run with it. For that reason, we can find Beijing, Sichuan, or Hong Kong style restaurants in pretty much every Chinese city; just like we can go to any city in the US and find Italian, Mexican, and Chinese places. Also similar to the US, many Chinese cities have special foods that are almost synonymous with that place (think deep-dish pizza and Chicago or cheesesteaks and Philadelphia). Every time we tell friends about our travels plans, they immediately tell us which foods we have to try when we get there. We’ve had the Hot Dry Noodles (Re Gan Mian) of Wuhan, the Sweet and Sour Pork (Gou Bao Rou) of Harbin, the Egg Puffs of Hong Kong, and many others.

My Favorite Dishes: Okay, time to make your mouth water! Here are the Chinese foods I’ve come to love over the last 6 months:

Dumplings (Jiao): Of course! Boiled (shui jiao) or fried (guo tie), filled with meat or vegetables, these are a staple in my life. You can get them in soup or not, with sauce or not, and we’ve even been known to buy them by the dozens in the frozen food section of the grocery store. Everyone loves dumplings, and China has the best I’ve ever had.

Noodles (Mian tiao): Another favorite that has more variations than I could possibly write out are the noodles of China. There are noodle soups (mian tang), mixed sauce noodles (zhajiang mian), cold noodles (liang mian), handmade noodles, and the list goes on. Noodles disheds can run the flavor gamut from spicy Sichuan style to sour, vinegar-forward Anhui varieties. I’m pretty sure my Chinese friends, students, and colleagues think the only thing I eat is noodles…

Ji Pai: Translated as “chicken steak”, it’s basically sliced, fried chicken breast served over steamed rice. The campus restaurants serve it with a white sauce (sha la – like salad, as in salad dressing), and it’s delicious! Crispy and juicy with a delicious cream-based sauced (another rarity in China), it ensures I don’t only eat noodles.

Dry Pot Veggies (Gan guo cai): A little difficult to describe, “dry pot” refers to the way these dishes are served: in a wok placed over a small burner on the table. They bubble and continue to soak up the sauces and spices in the wok as everyone works to mix and eat them up. Our favorites include dry pot cabbage with bacon, cauliflower with peppers, and spicy potatoes and onions.

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Dry pot cauliflower with Hui style dumplings and noodles

Sticky Potatoes (Ba Si Hongshu): It is no secret that I love potatoes. In Poland I ate boiled potatoes with dill just about every other day, but in China, this is my go-to potato dish. Fried sweet potatoes with a sweet, sticky glaze on top – what’s not to love?

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Close up of a tiny tomato rabbit (and some sticky potatoes)

Hot Pot (Huo guo): I call this Chinese Fondue, but it’s not quite the same. Hot pot (literally translated as “fire pot”) is a sort of soup or broth that’s used to cook meats and vegetables at your table. There are many choices to be made when eating hot pot, like which style of broth (spicy, mushroom, tomato, etc.) and which foods to cook/eat, meats (the most popular being lamb, pork, beef, and shrimp), vegetables (like cabbage, cucumbers, and potatoes), and many other choices (including bamboo shoots, bread, mushrooms, noodles, etc.).

Fast Food: I’m not going to lie. There have been times I’ve craved “familiar” food, broke down, and went to a fast food chain for some nostalgia (and let’s face it, ease). In China we have plenty of McDonalds, KFCs, Subways, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts. We’ve also seen Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Haagen Dazs, and an Outback. If ever we find ourselves at a place like this, I safely, happily order something that I know and love, and Tucker tries the more adventurous route: like a shrimp burger at McDonald’s and a coffee and mochi blizzard at Dairy Queen. He’s a food gambler, and it has yet to truly pay off – fast food classics are popular for a reason, regardless of country.

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Classics for me, shrimp burger for Tucker

To be honest this is just the tip of the Chinese food iceberg. In such a vast, diverse, and old country, there’s bound to be a plethora of culinary options. Maybe in the future I’ll write about Chinese snack foods, holiday foods, crazy menu translations, and/or the dishes that scare the hunger right out of me. Until then, I’m just going to eat some more noodles.