I Went on a 60-Day Duolingo Streak Before My Trip to France—Here's How It Went

Immersion truly is the best way to learn a new language

Duolingo Learner

Courtesy of Duolingo

Chouette. 

"Shoe-ette," I repeated back in my very American accent. When will I ever need to know the word owl in France? I thought. 

When a representative for Duolingo asked me if I'd be interested in trying Super Duolingo—the app's premium subscription—to nail down the basics of either French or Spanish (my choice!) before putting my language skills to the test in a predominantly French- or Spanish-speaking destination, I was all in. 

I took a semester of French in high school and four semesters in college, but, having only gone to France once before (and nearly 10 years ago at that), my phrases were limited to "Je m'appelle Elizabeth" ("My name is Elizabeth"); "Comment ça va?" ("How are you?); “J’étudié le français pour trois années” (“I studied French for three years”); and “J’aime le fromage” ("I like cheese”). 

Given the opportunity, I chose to brush up on my French. The kicker? I had to go on a 60-day streak. As someone who forgets to drink water and frequently ignores her gentle Plant Nanny notifications reminding her to hydrate, I was a little doubtful of my ability to stick to it.

Duolingo App

Courtesy of Duolingo

The Study

Last November, Duolingo launched the latest version of its app: a wholly revamped home screen designed as a guided learning path with ordered lessons that are "grounded in [the concept of] spaced repetition," according to the site. 

While frequent app users may initially be confused by the new format, the lesson content has not changed. There are 199 units for French learners. Each unit features a guidebook of grammar tips and key phrases, plus seven or eight "levels" that teach users various concepts such as vocabulary, verb tenses, and number agreement. Some of the levels in a unit are lessons containing a mix of exercises—listening, reading comprehension, speaking, writing, and matching pairs—while others review concepts that had been introduced in prior units.

"It's more effective to space out practice for a particular concept than to cram," wrote Duolingo in a blog post announcing the new learning path. "When you initially learn a concept, you'll want to revisit it fairly soon after, but then you can gradually expand the time between practice sessions. This strategy helps concepts stick in your memory long-term."

The new update also built personalized practice lessons and stories—short vignettes that Duolingo users read before answering comprehension questions—into the home screen's guided path as levels. In doing so, learners can more easily access the stories and review material without jumping around the app, as was the case in its previous version.

At the end of the 60 days, I had completed 21 units, which covered everything from basic French phrases and greetings such as "comment ça va?" (how are you doing?) and "au revoir," to conjugating common verbs like "to live" and "to be" in the present tense, to discussing travel plans and ordering popular food and drink items (think croissants and a glass of wine).

I didn't need to be worried about breaking my streak. Duolingo has been gamified into a competition, with each participant battling it out in 30-person leagues to earn more "XP" points than the rest. There are 10 leagues in all—leagues being Duolingo's version of a weekly leaderboard—and those ranking towards the top each week move onto the next level.

There are a few ways you can earn XP points, the most basic of which is simply completing a lesson. Practicing between 6 a.m. and noon unlocks the early bird chest, which can be "claimed" in the evening to double the XP points earned per lesson for 15 minutes. You can also practice your mistakes in a separate tab and do timed challenges to get more points.

A competitive side of me I didn't know existed came out while I was playing. Occasionally, Duolingo would offer me a surprise 15-minute XP boost, which got me to practice French longer than I had initially planned, hoping to advance to the next league.

Competition aside, the app encourages learners to use the app with monthly challenges that land you an exclusive badge after earning 1,000 XP, and badges won for accomplishing personal milestones: completing lessons without any mistakes, practicing on both Saturday and Sunday, and learning 2,000 words in a single course, for instance.

And if that wasn't enough to encourage me to practice, Duolingo also sent me notifications reminding me to log in and keep my streak going, even late at night, when I was getting ready for bed. While there were times I groggily conjugated verbs close to midnight, I completed the 60-day challenge, feeling more prepared than ever for a un verre du vin (glass of wine).

Dijon

Elizabeth Preske

The Test

I have always said that immersion is the best way to learn a language. I had been to Paris before, but knowing that any attempt to speak French there would be responded to in fold in English, I traveled to France's Burgundy region and Lyon. I spent eight days in France: two days in Burgundy, three days in Lyon, and three days in Paris. 

The experience was, in a word, uncomfortable. It's my personal belief that every traveler visiting a foreign country should learn some essential words and phrases before their trip: Words and phrases such as hi, how are you, I'm doing well, thank you, goodbye. It's presumptuous to assume that everyone you meet abroad speaks English. (I'm reminded of my time in Florence when one Italian food vendor reprimanded my friend who tried ordering a panino in English: "Why are we expected to speak your language in your country when you come to our country expecting us to speak your language?" she lamented.) 

Learning a country's language is a way to respect the culture and the people who live there. But it's easier to say that than to do it. When traveling abroad, I often ask a stranger in English if they speak English. In a place like France, where a good chunk of the people there do speak English, there's comfort in knowing that the likely response to "Parlez-vous Anglais?" ("Do you speak English?") is "yes," and that I can fall back on my native language at any point. 

But I was never going to improve my French if I did that. I needed to be uncomfortable to learn.

My first night in Beaune, when ordering dinner—the cassolette d'escargots (snail casserole) for my partner, some hure de saumon au basilic (salmon head with basil) for me—I recalled Duolingo's unit on ordering food and drink. I knew the words—"je voudrais, il prend" ("I would like," "he'll have")—I had practiced them over and over, but my tongue still got them twisted out of nerves. There's a difference between speaking out loud to a nonjudgmental cartoon owl and to a native French speaker, who I was afraid would not understand a lick of my admittedly terrible accent and whose questions and responses could not be slowed down into clear, compartmental words I could recognize.

The server repeated what I said, correcting my grammar and terrible pronunciation. Unlike in Paris, where I spent four days not long after my fourth semester of college French, my request was answered in French, not English. I was equal parts surprised and flustered. The onus was on me to continue the conversation in French.

"How am I doing?" I asked my partner after our server took down my order and walked away.

"C minus," he said in jest.

The following day, at a pâtisserie a few blocks from my hotel, I ordered a couple of croissants aux amandes, relying on the exact words and phrases I had learned just weeks prior, with just a tad more confidence. “Voudriez-vous la cheque?” the cashier asked.

“Oui, s’il vous plaît” (“Yes, please”). Had she asked me if I wanted the check? Was she speaking to me in Franglais? A line formed behind me, and I didn't want to look stupid. Better to say "yes" to everything, right? 

She handed me the receipt. “Merci beaucoup,” I said. Thanks a lot.

In Dijon, I followed the Parcours de la Chouette, the Owl's Trail, a self-guided walking tour that brings visitors to 22 of the city's biggest attractions, with some 1,600 brass plaques embedded in the pavement leading the way. While I didn't need to know any French to navigate the trail, it was nice to point at plaques—each adorned with a cute little owl—every so often and exclaim, "chouette!" It felt like an accomplishment, however minuscule.

Over the next few days, there was progress—more conversations held entirely in French—but there were setbacks, too. Especially at the end of a long day, when my mental faculties had run dry. I was David Sedaris in "Me Talk Pretty One Day." I was bumbling and inept. There were times when I just wanted to give up. My brain was tired of translating what I wanted to say into the simplest of phrases, from continuously searching my mental Rolodex of essential French words to retrieve the correct phrase for the situation, from the constant feeling of embarrassment. 

At the Gallo-Roman Museum & Amphitheaters in Lyon, I tried ordering two general admission tickets: “Deux billets, s’il vous plaît.” 

The woman behind the admissions desk asked me something I couldn't quite catch. I looked at her dumbfounded. “Desolée,” I mumbled. Sorry. “Je ne comprends pas.” I don't understand.

"Would you like me to speak in English?" she asked.

"Yes, please."

In Lyon, half the time (and in Paris, every time) I tried to speak French, the other person would respond in English. But I wasn't offended. If anything, I felt relieved. They were trying to save both of us the time—and in my case, embarrassment—of trying to communicate in a language I barely understood. 

While Duolingo had taught me how to order wine, to ask which train is going to Paris, and to ask how much something costs, it hadn't prepared me for handling travel grievances, the unpredictable—but inevitable—problems that crop up on any given trip. When checking out of my hotel in Beaune, for instance, I had been charged for a 100-Euro bottle of wine I didn't order, and I didn't have the vocabulary to contest the bill. 

During moments like these, I had to accept defeat and revert to English. I was—and still am—at the beginner level, and navigating conflict when I've yet to re-learn how to count higher than 20 is beyond me.

But I had to keep trying.

The Result

It still rings true that immersion is the best way to learn a new language—but if you're a new language learner, you still need to study over and over (and over) to get to a place where being fully immersed helps you grow (and, in my case, to kick off a conversation).

Even though I technically had a leg up, having taken French classes before, I wouldn't have stood a chance trying to make my way around the country had I not downloaded Duolingo before my trip. It helped me navigate airports and train stations; say hellos, pleases, and thank yous to everyone I met; purchase museum tickets; and order off menus. (Even if I couldn't decipher a good chunk of the ingredients, I knew enough to know whether I was ordering chicken or beef, and put my faith in French chefs).

Logging into the app for 60 days straight also ensured that the newly learned lessons stuck in my mind—a much better way to prep for a trip abroad than quickly Googling "how do you say 'how much does this cost?' in French" hours before a flight... and then swiftly forgetting the words the moment you need them.

While 60 days wasn't enough to teach me more than the basics, and there were several moments where I felt, frankly, stupid for my inability to speak fluently, it helped me enter conversations with confidence and show the other person respect for their culture. In my experience, I think the stereotype that French people look down on people who don't speak their language is untrue; if anything, when I tried as best I could, I often was met with kindness and a willingness to either help correct my grammar or switch to English because it was simply easier.

And yes, while there are words like "chouette" that maybe the average beginner doesn't need to know, it makes learning fun, and in all likelihood, I'm never going to forget the French word for "owl."

On New Year's Eve, I asked my partner what was one thing he learned about me in 2022 that surprised me. He told me he was surprised I knew how to speak French—a significant improvement from my C minus.

Article Sources
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  1. Duolingo. "Introducing the New Duolingo Learning Path." May 6, 2022.

  2. Duolingo. "FAQ: Duolingo's New Learning Path." Accessed January 9, 2023.