Late one chilly evening last September, I excused myself from a small group huddled around a campfire to peck at and mumble into my phone.
No way was a camping trip going to make me miss my Italian lesson.
For most of the preceding year, I had religiously attended to my 15-minute-or-so daily encounters with the language-learning app Duolingo. I used it on trains, while walking across town, during previews at the movie theater. I was planning a trip to Rome in the late spring, and I’ve always been of the mind that to properly visit a country, you’ve got to give the language a shot.
But I had another reason for sticking with it: Duolingo is addictive. It pulled me right in, helping me set daily goals and then launching into simple phrases. Sometimes it demanded that I speak an Italian phrase or sentence (which I always did correctly, to hear Duolingo tell it). But more often it asked me to translate Italian phrases and sentences into English, or vice versa, providing multiple-choice responses. No tedious grammar or vocabulary drills—that stuff, apparently, would seep into my consciousness via exposure to increasingly varied, complex, and interesting sentences.
Duolingo praised me constantly: for responding correctly several times in a row, for completing a chunk of the day’s lesson, for learning from my sloppy mistakes. Finishing a lesson was a full-out digital celebration featuring treasure chests with flapping lids. The app kept me apprised of my progress via various point schemes, and used email and phone notifications to nudge me to keep my routine going, even betting me points that I wouldn’t keep my streak up for another week. Sucker! I became rich in worthless points, and cherished them.