30 Días

In the post Learning to Hate Driving Less, I raved about the Waze application. By giving me points for driving, assigning me a ranking, and letting me compete with friends, Waze has totally changed my relationship with driving. At the end of the post, I said:

It really is silly that giving me points to do something I dislike can make the task much more enjoyable, but it has. I’m wondering how else I can use point seeking to improve my life.

Learning Spanish has been a goal of mine since high school, but it has never been a top-five goal for me. A few times since I completed Spanish 2 in the 9th grade, I would start an attempt to learn Spanish, but I never got far. A few days here and then another interest of mine would catch my eye and I’d put the Spanish workbook back on the shelf where it would gather dust.

As the years and decades have passed, I have come to believe that I would likely never learn Spanish. But with my Waze experience, I decided to seek out a Waze-like way to learn Spanish. A website with a mobile application that provided points, levels, managed streaks, and let me compete against friends. I found Duolingo and I love it. It has all those features.

Yesterday I completed 30 consecutive days. During those days, I averaged seven lessons a day. I’m on Level 9 and have earned over 2,000 XP. I have five friends that I can see on a weekly scoreboard. As the week progresses, we compete for top ranking.

Spanish was never this fun in high school.

Duolingo Spanish

Duolingo Spanish

More than the points and ranking, I think the streak feature is the key. Learning a language requires daily practice. Having a streak and not wanting to break it has been very motivating. J.D. Moyer in his post Why Is It Important to Define Your Life Purpose? stressed the importance of daily practice and tipped me off to the Jerry Seinfeld tip to “Don’t break the chain.”

When we break the chain, one day can turn into one week. One week can turn into months or years.

The other lesson I wanted to take in was from the book The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! The principle idea is that we need to give a new goal or hobby twenty hours before we quit. For the first twenty hours, we are going to be kind to our beginner self and engage in deliberate practice. When we quit or give up it is most likely to happen in those first 20 hours. Commit to twenty hours before you even start.

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!
The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! by Josh Kaufman

I can’t hold a conversation in Spanish yet, but I am learning new words daily. Two weeks ago after I had some Duolingo momentum going, I started listening to Pimsleur Spanish in the car. So while I am earning Waze points, I’m learning more Spanish to help me earn more Duolingo points!

I just bought a Spanish grammar book and started watching three different learning Spanish channels on YouTube (Butterfly Spanish, Gringo Español, Señor Jordan).

My goal for the next 30 days is to keep the streak alive and not to break the chain.


Add yours

  1. Hey MAS, love this post.

    Have you tried Memrise? Like you I was trying and failing to learn a language the old-fashioned way (both when at school and after) — mine was Portuguese. I have found having something online and available on my phone with the daily revision and new learning targets “gamified” (if that is the word) has really helped me keep it going.

    It was this Joshua Foer article about him learning Lingala that alerted me to it: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/nov/09/learn-language-in-three-months

    Personally I have found splitting learning between 1) talking and listening; and 2) reading and writing very useful — the latter can be done in 5 mins which you can grab here and there throughout the day (even at your desk in an office) — you may not be able to get an unbroken 30 or 60min chunk on a set day at a set time that a traditional classroom course would require.

    By getting “points” for even doing 5 mins a day it keeps motivation up to carry on — which was really lacking when I tried (and largely failed) attempting it traditionally.

    It may not be the “best” way to learn but it is what has kept me going and as I look forward to doing it daily I can’t see why I would stop. Up to around 1,000 words in my long term memory apparently — which I read was the average vocab of a 4 year old. It took me LESS than four years — suck on that toddlers!

  2. Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner is also a very pertinent book on using online tools and Anki for language learning as well.

  3. @SimonM – Yes I have installed Memrise, but I haven’t made it part of a daily ritual.


    Are you using the Premium version?

  4. @MAS — yes, I am using the Premium version as I found I was using it everyday and for the few things that I like a lot (Feedly for example) I like to make a commitment to. I’ve really enjoyed using it. Will check out Duolingo as well but so easy to get overwhelmed by trying lots of these and then the keeping up the streak you mention becomes a chore and easily stops being a habit.

  5. Without notes, without trying to remember grammar rules, in the most natural way you can imagine: Michael Thomas, for Spanish or any of the languages they offer. You test half an hour (you can “find free” on internet) and then tellme if you really want to continue testing other systems. Good luck!

  6. Chris Highcock

    Jun 15, 2015 — 11:43 pm

    I’m on Duolingo too. How do I find you as a friend (competitor?)

    Also in terms of streaks I use coach.me to keep track of habits, streaks etc and keep me motivated

  7. @Chris – I’ll look into coach.me. I was also exploring Way of Life. Tried HabitRPG, but didn’t like the U/I.

    I can be found on Duolingo here:

  8. This is fabulous. I have been searching for a way to motivate myself to refresh my French. DuoLingo fits the bill perfectly. Thank you so much for blogging about it.

  9. @Geoff – bonne chance! (I don’t know any French. Used the Google Translate tool)

  10. Doode,
    Wanna learn Spanish naturally and quick? move to a Spanish speaking country for a year and get a Spanish-speaking girlfriend who does not speak English. Hang out in bars and play pool with Spanish speakers.
    You’re a computer guy right? Get some remote gigs that don’t care where your body is.

  11. @Mike – Quickly is not a goal of mine. Consistency first. I do like your idea though, especially come winter.

  12. Michael — just wanted to thank you for this. My wife had been looking for another way to learn Spanish, and is loving Duolingo. She, too, is inspired to keep her streak going, and is now about six weeks in. She has also picked up some additional study materials like workbooks and flash cards.

    Thanks again!

  13. @Mark – That is great news. In late 2013 I got a few friends hooked on Candy Crush. I quit and they kept playing. Now a few of those friends are moving over to Duolingo. Much better.

  14. Thanks for sharing this, Michael. Duolingo Spanish sounds and looks exciting. One day I hope to make time to use it to pursue my desire to learn some Spanish. Once I saw a cartoon mimicking those “how-to” books, how to do something in 3 steps, 5 steps, etc. Well, the Spanish book title read “How To Learn Spanish In 30,000 Steps.”

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