Monday, May 13, 2013

Language learning as a game, with Duolingo

You're in a tight spot: you've battled for a few minutes to get this far only to be pinned down by three paramilitaries with machine guns. Low on health, you shootdodge your way out using bullet-time. Looks like you might have made it to the next checkpoi... aw SNAP! you're taken out by an enemy on the sidelines you didn't even notice. Back to the last saved point once again.

Fact: Max Payne 3 is loosely based on Duolingo.

What's the hardest part about learning a language? Mastering French pronunciation? All the masculine, feminine, and neuter business you get with, say, Greek? Is it the weirdness of Chinese tones? True, these are all hard things, but I have found one of the hardest parts with language learning has now got to include the crushing feeling of frustration felt when you crash out of a Duolingo test on the last question. That sheer feeling of anti-climax, repeated enough times over plenty of lessons, made me realise that what I was doing was playing a game - a computer game, to be specific - as much as learning a language.

So what's Duolingo? It's a language-learning website started by Luis van Ahn and others: it's what he spent his MacArthur fellowship 'genius' windfall on apparently. I found out about it a few months ago and have been using it to practise French and Spanish (with a little German on the side). What I'm interested in here though is the way the site has prominent game-like aspects. You progress through a skill tree for a particular language, starting with the basics and ending with more difficult stuff like the past subjunctive, say. In each skill you might have about 5 tests (although some have up to 20), and in each test you have 20 questions. You're allowed 3 wrong answers in a test before you fail it and have to start again. The overall tree uses a progressive revelation model, whereby you have to master earlier skills to be allowed do subsequent ones, like unlocking levels in a Cut the Rope level pack.

With apologies to the article translation section, the heart of the site seems to me to be the skill test, composed of 20 questions, which is really a game. The screenshot above shows me failing the last (that's why the green progress bar is full) of the 20 questions, when I had no hearts left. Which just means I had already fluffed three questions before that, and three was the limit. I may have answered 16 correctly, but for my mistake in thinking that "il frappe la balle, et but!" meant "he kicks the ball and scores!" I got no points. For the entire 20 questions. In terms of learning, which after all is the whole point, it hasn't been a waste of time - far from it in fact, as up to that point I'd been hearing, reading, and writing French for the past 3 or 4 minutes. But in terms of the game, it's exactly like having Lara Croft fall off a ledge and having to go back to the room she was in 4 minutes ago, to face some tricky jumps and kills all over again even though she's already done them. Frustrating.

Memrise is another (mainly) language learning site with a fair amount of gamification. But when you do a 20-or-so-question test - or in the vernacular of Memrise, when you plant, harvest or water the stuff you're learning - you can still complete a session despite failing all the questions. You mightn't get any points, it's true, if you failed them all, but you do get points for any answers you got right. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. (Incidentally, the number of questions depends on a few things in Memrise - you might only get 4 questions, or you might get more than 20 - it's not as deterministic in that way as Duo is). And there isn't that growing sense of desperation you experience on Duolingo as your last heart drops away, and you have to be very careful with every subsequent answer. Then, concentrating on the past subjunctive of penser - "to think", you write la instead of le elsewhere in the sentence. "No, no, you don't understand", you shout, "the question wasn't really about whether problème is masculine or feminine, it was really about the correct translation of the part with 'she would have thought...'! And anyway, I already know that problème is masculine. I was concentrating on the other thing!" Despite the fact that you may well have typed out 16 long sentences in French you get Nul points.

The sheer frustration of failing on or near the last question in a skill test reminded me of Max Payne 3; that, and all the Portuguese. That's when I thought - this feels exactly like a game! In that game I'm stuck at a point where I can't shoot, stab or bomb my way out of a situation, and there's no interim save point. So I end up repeating it over and over. And sadly, it means I've more or less given up on ol' Max. I wonder if there are any Duolingers in the same boat.

How else exactly is it like a game? Here are a few aspects, ranging from very high-level right down to finer details, of using Duolingo that resemble playing a game, specifically a computer game.

Overcoming arbitrary obstacles of your own making: at a very high level, games are not something that you have to do. Filling in your tax form is hard too, may involve several attempts before getting it right, and ultimately may feel rewarding to have finally finished it, but you have to do it so it's not a game. If you didn't have to do it, one could imagine it being a game, simply because some people think fishing is a good basis for a game, so it's not out of the question that filling in a tax form could provide some people with a good gaming experience. But generally speaking, learning Spanish on Duolingo is not necessary, it's more like a game.

The possibility of failure: again, at a high level, if there was no way to fail then this wouldn't be a game. If Duo moved you on to the next part of the course no matter how badly you answered the previous question, then ironically it would probably be much less popular and certainly would be a less effective site, because people learn that questions of this nature have to involve failure and reward.

Competition with others: You can friend or follow other people on Duo, and it seems that the only purpose of that is to have them appear on the scoreboard ("Leaderboard") on your home page. You can't message them or otherwise do anything, so the message is clear - you are choosing competitors. But it's an asymmetrical competition: just because you choose them they don't have to choose you. It's more like choosing a pacemaker in a race. Either way, that is a really strange thing. It is taking two things that are not normally associated with each other: competing and learning. Why should learning a language have anything at all to do with competition. But if I'm honest it makes sense. As far as the score goes, I want to crush my "friends", pound them into the dust and humiliate them. Some days that's just what learning a language is all about. Hey, don't blame me, I'm just responding to incentives here.

You don't normally learn a language like this. Sure, you get examined on your ability at university or school, but on an ongoing basis there isn't much competition. I've done a couple of evening language classes in my life (Spanish, and currently Greek at St. George's) and in those circumstances not only is there no real competition to speak of, but it's exactly the opposite: the pace normally slows to accommodate the weakest people in the class, which is a loss for everyone except those people. Competition in learning is a very strange thing really. In fact, this whole wretched blog post is me trying to come to terms with why on earth learning should be even remotely like a game. Maybe it's always been there: maybe we've just all become used to the mechanics of gaming so we don't see it. But I see it.

Strategies: a common scenario is to get a couple of questions wrong early in a difficult test. At this point you have a choice: faced with the likelihood of flunking the test in ignominy and shame, you might just cut your losses and restart it. You don't want to waste (ok, you'd be learning all the while, it's true) a couple of minutes, odds stacked against you, when you could just go again with no cost. The game doesn't penalise you for doing so. On the other hand, having lost 3 hearts early in the test to then persist against the odds and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on 'Verbs: Past Subjunctive' is to know great glory and kudos: it is a great Duolingo moment.

Addiction. Say no more.

Rewards physical virtuosity: You might have a good ear for French, but how fast can you type it? Can you touch type? These skills are also being assessed in the timed rounds. If you have 3 seconds left on a timed round and you have to listen to "En faisant manger des légumes aux enfants, ils vont découvrir un nouveau type de nourriture." and type it in French, typing speed matters, not just your ability at French.

Chance: You fail a test, you do it again and pass. Are you suddenly much better at Abstract Objects? No, you were luckier this time round. The rugby ball, so to speak, bounced into your hands as you hit your stride this time instead of away from you into touch. Like coming from behind to win at backgammon by rolling two sixes, you can cruise through a skill on luck alone. Well, to a degree, but you know what I mean. The questions are selected at random from a pool, and this randomness is a crucial element of games of chance. Not chess clearly, more like backgammon.

Earning, or 'Unlocking': as I mentioned above, this is like the way with Cut the Rope you have to pass a level to play subsequent ones. It's a bit more sophisticated than that on Duo, but that's the idea.

Artificial time constraints: There is no need for Duo to challenge us to answer in a timed practice round, but it's great fun. A hectic sprint through 'Infinitives 2' sorts the men from the boys and can lead to a few exhilarating, near-death moments. Incidentally, it's in this timed game that I feel that Duo is actually breaking the rules somewhat. As people have pointed out already the timer should stop for the interim after the player has responded and before the next question is presented. I have a slow connection sometimes and it kills the game for me to see the countdown tick away without being able to do anything. It feels like someone's cheating. Speaking of cheating...

Cheating: I'll admit it, I've cheated doing one or two tests on Duolingo. But in my defense, it was because the latter stages of the French tree are riddled with mistakes and/or omissions. I know this because I submitted translations that I was marked wrong on that I thought should be allowed and they were duly accepted by the team, which in itself is a fantastic credit to Duo, and makes up for the errors. I have enormous sympathy for a team trying to build something as sophisticated as this, but at the same time I was impatient to spank French and I found the only way I could get past the arbitrary translations of some of the later skill tests was to write down what they wanted and paste it in on subsequent attempts. I knew the answer, but their normal flexible ambiguity-resolution-machine was kaput. If I hadn't done so I would have been reduced to rote remembering the exact phrasing of the correct translation - none other would do, it seemed - and I guessed this was just a temporary failing which would soon be fixed. Again, this was a case where I felt that Duolingo was not playing by the rules, and it was only with some reluctance that I temporarily changed the rules of the game: I cheated.

Well-defined end: one thing I don't like with Memrise, which is similar to Duolingo in many ways, is that they don't make as clear-cut a distinction between finishing a course and still doing it. Duo does, although when I finished Spanish I gotta say I expected more than the "You finished Verbs: Conditional Perfect" - ¡I just friggin' finished Spanish, hombre! Games have well-defined endings, and it's nice to see that Duo the owl now makes an appearance at the end of a skill tree. Stuff like that matters.

One recent development that is actually ungamelike - but which I think is genius both in terms of gameplay and in terms of reflecting what actually happens to your language ability - is the slipping over time of your mastery of a skill. I say ungamelike because I don't know of any game where this happens: if I go back to Max Payne 3, Civilization 5, or, any games I won or accomplishments I achieved months or years ago are still there. I say genius in terms of gameplay because that simple change dragged me back in to play more just when I thought I'd finished Spanish, and it keeps me doing French too, now that I've competed that tree as well.

When are you actually learning a language?

You might say doing stuff on Duolingo is not really learning a language. You are just going through screens, answering questions that are in the form of a lesson in a particular language and getting points and colours as you proceed. Maybe so, but it's better than some of the ways I've had to learn a language in my life which in retrospect were dire, and worse: no fun. To me it's more like revising a language. Many activities such as having a conversation with a friend in Spanish, or watching Jean de Florette are not "learning a language" either, but rather having a chat or watching a film. Learning a language is just an aggregation of loads of little things you do, most of which are probably not "learning a language".

Originally I didn't think I'd use Duolingo to learn a language from scratch, but I have found that the site is done so well, and the points scheme and division into skills are so compelling that I'm actually going to use it to learn a few words of Italian for the first time. The game is so much fun I just want to keep playing. Apparently I'll soon be able to do so on my HTC One X (Apple users have had this privilege for a while). I just won't know which apps folder on my phone to put it in: the languages one with Google Translate, Babbel, and Pleko, or the games one with Chess, Cut the Rope and Cogs!

Update: by the way, naturally enough I created a new discussion linking to this post on Duolingo iteslf, so if you're at all interested you might want to contribute to that discussion or at least see some of the comments there.