The Wacky World of competitive Duolingo

I am not a competitive person. I say this recognizing that lacking a competitive side to the extent that I do is a character flaw, and that people have pointed this out to me, and I recognize that I need to work on it. But I can’t wrap my head around why people are competitive. If someone says to me ‘hey, I am stronger than you’ well that statement is either A) true, wherein I shouldn’t give a shit as much as I don’t care if a person said ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘the president lives in the white house’, or B) false, wherein the real concern comes from the fact that person is going around saying that that are not true, and I am now much more interested in the person’s epistemic standards. Either way, we aren’t arm wrestling because I have more important shit to do.

And of course, the bigger picture to remember is that on a long enough timeline we all are going to lose. The house (and in this metaphor the house ends up being entropy and the heat death of the universe) always win, and if you don’t believe me – wait a fucking while. Philip of Macedon was once the most powerful person in the land, but a generation later Diogenes, while going through a pile of skulls, couldn’t tell Philips from all the other slaves.

So that’s my stance. It’s also fueled by growing up and watching so called adults do stupid things to achieve Pyrrhic Victories. Peers would also want to win so badly that they would get caught cheating at cards. I was squeezed through a massively traumatic near death experience at the age of six, and I was quickly cognizant of the notion that every day I wasn’t fucking dead was the true god damn victory.

So yea. Competitivness is stupid. But I spent the month of September 2019 in GLORIOUS UNEMPLOYMENT!, and while I was doing some kind of important things with my time, I was also trying to maintain my hobbies, one of which is using the language learning app duolingo. At some point over the past year Duolingo, which needs something to keep a bored user base active, introduced leaderboards into the app. I managed to be oblivious to this up until I received a message saying I was being bumped from the sapphire league.

At a personal level, I take duolingo a bit seriously. My running streak would be solidly in the thousands were it not for a very bad day in China and that fact that I traveled to Asia by cargo ship. So I figured what the fuck, seeing as how I am being all Liminal with my month, why not do something out of character and be competitive with my Duolingo. Let’s see what it nets me.

I was promptly punished for my curiosity.

Here is how duolingo works, roughly. Completing a lesson nets you some XP. Generally speaking doing a lesson nets you 10XP, and up to 5 more bonus points depending on what you got wrong (nothing wrong? 5 extra points). You can also do a quiz for a unit, which will give you 20 XP, or a checkpoint exam which net you 50XP. If you know a lesson super well you can breeze though it in 30 seconds or so (well, if the lesson is simple), but generally speaking the lesson should take you a few minutes.

The leaderboards run from week to week. Starting on Sunday evening (7pm EDT), you have the week to score as many points as possible. You are in the ring with 50 other people. At the end of the week, the 10 highest scoring individuals in your arena go up to the next rung, the bottom five are demoted, and everyone else stays put. As I progrressed upwards I noticed that the highest scoring individuals always seemed to be capable of some inhuman feats of learning. Then I began to suspect that these pricks were cheating.

So, let’s take a look:


That’s the top people of the leader board.


That’s the person who was number one. And by the way, this break got to that score on Monday fucking morning. Now, while that first screen shows the points he’s racked up just this week, the second screenshot shows his total point overall as a user of Duolingo. So two thirds of his total point on Duolingo have been scored on one day.

Something smells.

So let’s do some back of the envelop math here.

The previous week’s competition ended on Sunday evening at 7pm my time, and I checked the score the next morning around nine, which means this person at most had 14 hours to rack up these points. To score the amount of points he has, he would need to do 835 lessons in those 14 hours. At 30 seconds a lesson, that would take about 7 hours. He could have netted himself 50 points per exam, but that only would have been available four times per language, which wouldn’t really add up.

It’s also super weird that 2/3 of the total points he has he got in this past week.

Well, fuck it! I told myself I would be competitive and god damn it, competitive I shall be!

If these fuckers were going to cheat, I might as well do the same. I noticed that many of them were learning the same languages twice, IE, learning Spanish through English and English through Spanish.

(((TO BE FAIR, this is not a bad learning strategy and I am glad I implemented it with Greek, as the English via Greek had taught me a lot about the Greek language that is not yet present in the Greek learning section.)))

So I signed up for Italian via English and English Via Italian and proceeded to breeze through initial lessons. Already knowing italian fairly well, I did the same for Spanish and Portuguese (because you if speak one Romance language you pretty much speak the other. If you stick a potato in your mouth when you speak and no one will notice anything. An educated Spanish speaker will speak Italian better (with no effort) than a German who has been actively studying Italian for a few years.)

I was suddenly taking a dozen duolingo courses, all of which would have some initial ‘easy’ stages (if you are only an English Speaker, try Dutch or Afrikaans), just to rack up points.

And then I had to stop. All of this was reminding me of something that admitted charlatan Tim Ferris confessed to doing in his underwhelming book ‘the four hour work week’. Tim Ferris was once in Thailand and got it into his head that he wanted to win a Thai kickboxing tournament (I think it was Thai kickboxing. I read the book ages ago). Not compete in, but win at. So the fraud Ferris (I don’t like the guy) admitted to not drinking water for the days before his weighing in, thus causing him to weigh significantly less and therefore fight in a lower weigh class. He ended up (claiming to, who knows with this fucking fraud) demolishing his opponent.

I wonder if he took the idea from that one episode of Seinfeld?

But the point is there is nothing to be proud of in this. In sport we make do things on the basis of weight class for fairness, as a metric (however precise or not) that the match is fair. At that point, why not bring a bike to a foot race?

And that’s where I ended up with this. I didn’t want this needless competitiveness. Here is the thing: this is language learning. It cannot happen quickly to adults. I have been studying Greek for 10 years, I have been studying English for 30, and I have been studying Italian for 35. I am at various levels of progress with all three. But, to use my favorite quote ever:

No two of us learn our language alike, nor, in a sense, does any finish learning it while he lives.

-Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object

I will just go back to learning my langauge slowly and meticulously. Duolingo had important sentences to teach me, such as the following:


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