My Language-Learning App Has A Leaderboard And It’s Ruining My Life

I tried to wean myself off my mobile games by learning a new language. Now, instead of being obsessed with tapping on mobile games, I’m obsessed with my language-learning app. Damn it.

I’m a fidgety person. I touch my hair a lot, pick at my nails and scratch scabs. I’ve mostly curtailed these habits with mobile games, which give me something to do with my hands during idle moments. I don’t play complicated games; usually it’s stuff like Two Dots or Threes, which give me just enough brain activity that I forget about picking off my gel manicure for a couple minutes.

Recently, though, the games started to go beyond just being a distraction. I was getting a little frustrated with how much of my time these games were taking up, and how much brain space I was using trying to figure out how to beat Jason Schreier’s Threes score. On a whim I downloaded Duolingo, an app that teaches people languages, as a way to get the same level of distraction with a little more substance.

Originally, I was lamenting how much French I had lost and had intended to use Duolingo as a way to pick it back up. I can read French ok, but I’ve lost a lot of grammar and vocabulary. My prior knowledge ended up being a hinderance in practice. Each lesson felt a bit more like going to summer school than taking a totally new class. I knew about half the answers to every question in each lesson, even without reading the explanation of what would be covered in each lesson beforehand.

So I picked up Japanese as well (and Hindi, because why not), and now I’ve been steadily doing at least two lessons a day, trying to learn new things. For a time, the app was a suitable replacement for an idle habit that wasn’t doing much for me. Outside of the context of Duolingo, my Japanese knowledge is extremely limited, but I’d rather do something that feels like continuing to learn rather than playing Threes yet again. Then I discovered the leaderboard.

Duolingo has a leaderboard for experience points that resets weekly. On Monday, I saw that I had placed pretty high in the bronze league and had been promoted to silver. It was like I heard an audible click of a switch flicking on inside my brain. I could tell I was going to get obsessed with my rank in the leaderboard, and that it would completely derail my attempts to be good to my brain.

I hate that I am competitive, because I get more focused on the competition than being good to myself. It makes things less fun, because the wrong things about an experience will suddenly matter to me in ways that they didn’t before competition got introduced.

In Duolingo, I used to be satisfied with doing two lessons a day, which was the commitment I had made to the app itself. Duolingo doesn’t judge me if I leave it at two a day. All it wants from me is ten minutes. But now, I want to be number one, and that’s going to lead to me being more self-critical, and that will make learning something new less fun.

In general, I think gamifying non-game activities, like learning a language or going to the gym, actually makes them less fun. For me, at least, the motivating factor for doing something good for myself is pure self-improvement. I don’t need even mild game mechanics like a leaderboard to encourage me to keep doing something. I just need the direct feedback of my continued learning.

Doing a perfect push-up can go a long way in terms of keeping me going to the gym, and recognising Japanese words and phrases in the wild has helped a lot in terms of keeping me motivated at learning Japanese. Now that I know there’s a Duolingo leaderboard, I’m suddenly in a situation where there are potential winners or losers, and I now care more about winning or losing than about my own self-improvement.

I don’t want to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, but now I’m concerned about losing my current zeal for languages. My way of keeping mobile games from taking over my life was to step back and find a replacement, and if Duolingo does the same thing, I’ll most likely have to take a step back from using it.

The alternative is finding a way to care less about winning — but I’ve spent my whole life working on that, and come up short. I guess I’ll just have to buy a Japanese language textbook instead.

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