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Why is Duolingo Threatening My Life?

Duolingo. The language-learning app with over 83 million monthly users (as of 2023) has become the world’s most popular way to learn a language. Naturally, I decided to start learning German as one of my New Year’s Resolutions, so in January I re-downloaded the app after years of not being on Duolingo since we were forced to collect XP for Spanish class freshman year. After starting my German lessons, I quickly realized that Duolingo looks a lot different than it used to. They now have music and math lessons that you can take, as well as 45 different language courses. All of the lessons are led by Duo, a cute little green owl.

Well, is he really just a cute little owl? Or is he more of a passive-aggressive, guilt-tripping, life-threatening owl?

At first, he was all sunshine and rainbows, congratulating me for my progress and ongoing streak. But after about a week, I was quickly losing motivation and I also had very little time on my hands with the constant stress of school, work, social life, and. . . y’know. . . other stuff.

*cough cough TikTok cough Netflix cough cough*

But one night, around 11pm, as I opened my phone to get in a quick German lesson before I went to sleep, I was shocked by all the notifications that flooded my phone. There were emails and texts like

Make your screen time count.

You made Duo sad.

Don’t make Duo angry.

Looks like you missed your German lesson. You know what happens now. 

Even the widgets on my phone screen were pictures of Duo crying, glaring at me, going up in flames, even melting into a puddle. What in the world?!

And if that doesn't creep you out a little bit, maybe Duolingo Push will. On April Fools Day in 2019, Duolingo set up a prank called Duolingo Push, where they encouraged people to pay for a real-life Duo to literally show up in public to encourage them to practice. Obviously, the whole idea was a joke, but disturbing nonetheless.

Was Duo always this creepy?

Well, let’s take a look at the evolution of Duo over the years.

Duolingo was first created in 2011 by a professor named Luis Von Ahn and his postgraduate student, Severin Hacker. Back in 2011, Duo didn’t have emotions. In fact, the third generation Duo created in 2014 was the first one to have emotions: happiness and sadness. Sweet and simple. And now, Duo has an abundance of emotions, which he uses to “encourage” (more like force) learners to keep practicing daily and keep up their streaks. 

I have to admit, though, maybe Duo is onto something, because I’ve never felt more driven and determined to keep a streak for something in my 18 years of life. 

So why is this language app so effective and the most popular education app in the app store today? Maybe it’s because of one cute little owl.

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