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Everyone Can Duolingo!

FICTION | WRITING

Written by Neena Contreras (she/her) | Contributing Writer



I had an intense Duolingo phase. The app became my brand. We’re talking about a 365-day-long streak, winning in the Diamond League, and never missing a monthly challenge. We’re talking World Freaking Champion level - that’s the top 0.1% of learners, by the way. It was an addiction.


Wake Up. Eat. Drink. Sleep. Duolingo. Repeat. It wasn’t a successful day without my fix of Duolingo. The ‘correct’ sound effect would give me the biggest dopamine rush, while the ‘incorrect’ sound made me want to curl up in a ball and rot.


The internet villainised Duolingo’s mascot, Duo, and the company themselves leaned into it. I thought it was hilarious. All in good fun. “Russian or Concussion.” “Spanish or Vanish.” “Japanese or I’ll break your knees.”


A giant green owl coming to break my knees? No way. I knew Duo wasn’t real - but my guilt from not being productive was. I created a voice in my head and used the mascot as a vessel for my own self-loathing - kind of like the whole angel and devil on your shoulder thing. Duo’s voice was between the two; chaotic neutral -from words of affirmation, “Everyone can Dolingo” to “You really are useless. Quit doom scrolling and get a job, you waste of space.”


Eventually, I got too sidetracked by other commitments and struggled to find the motivation to do my daily lessons. It wasn’t enjoyable anymore, plus I already had my French classes — this lime green avian has nothing on the legend that is Madame Lynch.


I stopped receiving push notifications because they “didn’t seem to be working”, but I still get reminders in my widget to practise. Duo would be staring down menacingly, batting his eyes behind a fan, crying on the ground. A little manipulative if you ask me.


“Got 3 minutes?” Nope, busy with this internal.


“Last chance!” I’ll survive.


“Time to practice!”


Enough! I finally deleted the widget. Mistake numéro un.


When I close my eyes for bed that night, something feels off, like I’m not alone. I open my eyes again and try to sit upright but I can’t. Then, the most artificial, irritating green saturates the room in a flash, before immediately fading back to pitch black darkness.


My head won’t budge, but I can see a sliver of a green feather in my peripherals.


“Pouvez-vous me comprendre?”


Duo doesn’t have a single voice. When he speaks, it’s like static, a grating blend of every single language to have ever existed.


Before I can form the word “yeah”, Duo hits me with the classic, “EN FRANÇAIS”. I shudder.


“EUh, ouais, ouais. Qu’est-ce que tu-?” With one swift movement, I hear him pick up my lamp and fling it across the room with a piercing screech.


I try again. “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?”


”AH, so you’re not completely clueless. Use the subjunctive.”


”Il faut que vous pratiquez votre français.” I smirk. Gotcha.


”Alright, sycophant. What about your Swedish?” Shoot. I totally just learned a few phrases because of Young Royals.


“Uh.. Hej ! Jag är en dotter.” I cringe. Super basic and I butchered the word, “dotter”. Mistake nummer två.


“Your parents will be lucky to still have a daughter after that pathetic pronunciation”. He saunters over, looks down on me. I can analyse him properly now, I can see that his velvety suit, his cartoonish fluffy facade, are speckled with dark red blots. Not a good sign. Stay calm.


“I work SO hard. I do so many collaborations, plan subscriptions, and even offer you incredible options like Klingon, yet hundreds of millions of students have nothing to show for it. ‘Everyone can Duolingo’. Yeah right, so much for that motto.” Duo is shaking and he collapses to the ground in distress. I hear sniffles. Is he seriously crying?


Duo continues, “I’m sorry for caring. I’m sorry I want to use my knowledge to help others. People take advantage of my kindness. That’s why I have to be assertive.”


A beat.


He sniffles one last time and slowly rises, “Oh well, there’ll always be another polyglot-wannabe. You’re dead weight.” Duo reaches for the French Collins Robert Dictionary on my bedside table and swings it around a few times to gauge the force needed to take me out.


Yikes. The “Duo” in “Duolingo” should really stand for dangerous, unstable, and obsessive. Never meet your heroes I guess.


Desperate, I resort to reasoning with the unreasonable. Mistake number three.


“Wait! You should take a break. I think you uh- put too much pressure on yourself and your students.”


”It’s a lot of pressure. My head is so full. It must be so easy to be you.” I try to look as sympathetic as possible, while Duo’s exasperation turns into realisation. He gasps and my heart stops. “It must be. So. Easy. To. Be. You.” He tilts his head at me, and suddenly, I can move. I spring into action, crumpling my sheets as I kick them off of me. I bolt under his outstretched wings which close in just as I pass him, and I shut the door behind me.


Chest heaving, I spy the owl across the road, through a window. Just staring.


With a jolt, I open my eyes. I’m sure that I’m awake this time. So, it was just a nightmare. Solo una pesadilla. απλά ένας εφιάλτης ただの悪夢. Okay, weird.


Then I notice that I’m across the road, looking into my own house. I make eye contact with myself. Very weird. She speaks — I speak?


I distinctly hear my voice. “Everyone can Duolingo.”


I look down at my hands but they’re not hands at all. They’re lime green wings.


I watch myself smile, turn around, enter my room and close the door.


“Merde.”


Illustration by Cameron McCurdy (She/Her) @leighapparently | Social Media Coordinator

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