Breaking The Streak

Last week was a week of endings: projects completed, tethers cut, deadlines met. One friend handed in her PhD; another passed their viva. I handed in pass pages for Moth to a Flame, the last book in a trilogy I started in 2014 with a character I created in January 2012. And I also uninstalled Duolingo and said farewell to my 1850-day streak.

It would be weird to blog about my friends’ PhDs, and I haven’t entirely processed my feelings about coming to the end of the project I’ve been working on for my entire adult life, so today I’m going to talk about the last of these endings: my break-up with the owl.

It wasn’t, I should say, primarily or wholly an act of protest. The team behind Duolingo have made many choices in recent months and years that I have disliked, any one of which would have been reason enough to leave — the restructuring of the “tree” into a path where you can’t choose what topic to focus on and spend all your time stuck repeating the same five things over and over again; the decision to stop supporting and updating certain courses, including the Welsh course; the alleged reliance on AI at the cost of human jobs; the general way that the gamification and microtransactions of the platform have gradually overwhelmed the learning experience…

All of these would have been good reasons to leave. But the Irish course, which has been my primary focus for a long time, has never been a particularly well-constructed course. For a long time it lacked audio for the vast majority of sentences; a year or so ago they changed this with the addition of computer-generated voices that are, at times, so unclear it’s impossible to answer a question correctly. It contains far less vocabulary than many better-supported courses (only around 1700 words), hadn’t been updated in years, always lacked meaningful grammar notes, and was bereft of any of the features like stories and dialogues that appear in the French course and a few others.

They’d been talking about a new Irish “tree” for years, but it never materialised. I held out hope that it would, and continued to use the one that existed, because while deeply, deeply imperfect, it was better than nothing.

And this, I think, characterised my entire relationship with Duolingo. It was better than nothing, and nothing was likely to describe my learning without it. I struggled with motivation but, more than anything, I struggled with continuity — so while I might do ten exercises from a book in two days in a fit of enthusiasm, it would be followed by months of not touching the book at all.

The Duolingo streak is a flawed metric of progress, but it is also very, very useful. Two minutes a day, five minutes a day, ten minutes a day — it’s not a big commitment, and as the numbers rack up on that streak, it becomes harder and harder to say, “Nah, I don’t feel like it.” It forces consistency. And while two minutes a day isn’t enough to teach you a language, it will teach you a lot more than zero minutes a day.

It did teach me a lot more than zero minutes a day would have done. Maybe I don’t recall every single one of those 1700 words, but I can recognise them, and I could probably cobble a sentence together with most of them. There are a lot of jokes about the kinds of vocabulary and phrases that Duolingo teaches, and how useless they are, but multiple times I’ve been in conversations with more fluent speakers and discovered I know a word they’ve forgotten, because I learned it from Duolingo. There are even grammar rules I’ve learned from Duo, through sheer repetition.

1850 days.

I have been learning Irish for a very long time. I’ve tried, in the past, to outline the shape of my learning journey. It hasn’t been a quick one, or a consistent one, or a direct one. It’s been interrupted by life, redirected into Old Irish, disrupted by my sensory processing issues, and delayed by my poor memory. But perhaps that 1850-day streak gives us the best estimate. Five years ago, in early 2019, I decided that this was the year I was going to commit to learning modern Irish. And Duolingo was one of the tools I was going to use to do that.

1850 days is a long time. Five years is a long time, and the past five years have been particularly chaotic for me. I’ve moved house nine times since I started that Duolingo streak. Nine! I’ve moved to Ireland, and then back. I’ve started a job, left a job, done an MA, got top surgery, had another job, started a PhD, published two novels, written a bunch more — in other words, my Duolingo streak has been pretty much the most stable thing in my life since I was 23.

Of course, it would be misleading if I didn’t acknowledge that there were chunks of that time when I was learning Esperanto, or Welsh, or flirting with Latin, or poking around the Scottish Gaelic course. But for the most part, I’ve been doing some kind of Irish learning throughout those five years. Sometimes, it’s been active: taking classes, attending conversation groups, going to the Gaeltacht, doing exercises out of a book. Sometimes, it’s been passive: idly scrolling Twitter and trying to decipher tweets as Gaeilge, putting RnaG on in the background, or — most commonly — doing the bare minimum to keep my Duolingo streak and then checking out for the day.

The bare minimum, it turns out, is still something.

So why have I uninstalled the app?

Not as an act of protest, but as an act of love. Of respect for myself and my progress. Of acknowledgment, because I’ve come a long way. Of appreciation for the Irish language as something more than a daily obligation and a rote exercise.

Duolingo has been useful to me — more useful than you might expect. I notice that words come to mind more quickly when I’m regularly in practice with vocab-matching than when I’m not. Perhaps, if they hadn’t redesigned the learning ‘tree’, it would have continued to be useful, because I could force myself to re-do the verb exercises I struggle with (will I ever remember the forms for the future tense?), but now, denied the opportunity to choose what to work on, I’ve reached a point where it can take me no further. I probably reached this point a while back, but I owe it to myself to finally acknowledge it, and move on.

I am a long way from fluent in Irish. My grammar is bad, and I struggle to put sentences together coherently, making conversation challenging. I understand much more than I speak, but am embarrased about my inability to respond. It sometimes feels like fluency is a completely unobtainable dream, meant only for others more linguistically talented than me; after all, if it were possible, wouldn’t it be closer by now, after all these years?

Maybe. Maybe I am fundamentally bad at languages, and will never be fluent.

But last month, I finished reading six books in Irish — children’s/YA books, for the most part, with simpler language, but I read them. I’m currently reading my first adult novel in Irish, and following it. I attend classes and conversation groups, and despite my poor grammar and tendency to be “ag déanamh” everything rather than risk another verb, I make myself understood. I find myself thinking in Irish, talking to myself in Irish (or in a horrific combination of Irish and English…). I’ll never particularly enjoy radio, because auditory processing isn’t my strong point, but I can pick out the meaning of headlines and news reports, rather than it feeling like a wash of meaningless noise. I watch documentaries on TG4, and draw connections between the Irish words I’m hearing and the English subtitles I’m reading, transcribing the audio in my mind into words I know I’ve seen.

A year ago, I said that I owed it to myself to acknowledge my progress, rather than always making self-deprecating jokes about my inability. Now I think I owe it to myself to stop treating myself like a beginner. I need to stop treating the language like an exercise and start living through it.

What do I mean by that? I don’t live in a Gaeltacht area, or even in Ireland. (I miss seeing the street signs and posters in Irish that I used to see when I lived in Cork.) The majority of people I interact with have no Irish. Conversations are in English, street signs are in English, forms and labels and websites are in English.

But, you see, I can read in it now.

From the outside, this seems like academic progress. “Well done, you can do basic reading comprehension exercises, move to the next TEG level” or whatever. But from the inside, this feels like a breakthrough, even though I’m still slow and stumbling and reliant on getting the gist of a sentence rather than grasping every word. This isn’t just about making progress in class, but about fundamentally moving forward in my relationship with the language.

Because I’m a reader. That’s what I do, almost every day, in English: I read. Hundreds of books a year. I read far more than I watch TV — or socialise, to be honest. It would be fair to say it’s my primary hobby, as well as a crucial part of my work as a PhD student and my life as a writer. A good chunk of every day is reading. Where conversation classes and TG4- or RnaG-assisted immersion felt like an active commitment and an attempt to Learn Irish™, reading is just… what I do. If I can do that in Irish, then Irish can start to be a part of my life, not just homework.

And if it’s part of my life, then I don’t need an app and an alarm and a streak and a threat to make me do a little bit every day, because it’s already there. It’s already in my mind, and in how I’m seeing the world around me, and in the books I’m reading. The consistency will come naturally, and without the sour edge of resentment: “Ugh, hang on, I gotta do my Duolingo now.”

In other words, I can live in it.

I am grateful to Duolingo for everything it has taught me. I’m frustrated with the roadblocks it put in the way of that learning through unhelpful updates. I resent that something as simple as a daily streak could have such a hold over me that deciding to uninstall it felt like a massive life decision. But mostly, I’m ready to move on. The owl got me this far, and now it’s time to fledge and leave the nest myself.

Go raibh maith agat agus slán, a Duo.


  1. Chalkletters says:

    This is genuinely very cool and inspiring! Congratulations on your progress, and on attaining enough Irish to read in it.

    I wish I had the kind of brain where maintaining a streak matters to me, but I simply do not. Even when the thought comes into my brain ‘oh, I should log in today, otherwise I’ll break my streak’ (which, to be honest, is mostly not a thought I have), that’s not enough to make me do it.

    • Finn Longman says:

      I found it very hard to let a streak motivate me at first, and I used an alarm on my phone to remind me because I would just swipe away the notifications. But once it got over a certain number, the idea of having to start again and never getting back what I’d lost started having a POWERFUL impact on me. Like, sure, I could have another 1850 day streak but if I hadn’t broken it, it could’ve been 3700, cue brain crisis, guilt, anxiety, etc. It really latched on to those anxious parts of my brain!

  2. Shanti says:

    All the times I’ve used Duolingo it has been far too irritating to keep going – I used it for Hindi and found the random sentences and tap tap tap not useful to my way of thinking. I occasionally write my diary in Hindi with a dictionary beside me but do practice it far less. This was a super interesting reflection on your language learning, thanks Finn!

    • Finn Longman says:

      I sometimes keep my journal in Irish too. But since I write it last thing at night and I’m prone to staying up way too late, I don’t often maintain this for more than a few days at time before there’s a night where I’m too tired to bother, and then it’s back to English again and stays that way for months…

  3. Stiofán says:

    Maith thú! I’ve only ever found Duo useful for learning holiday vocab before going on a trip, but for anything more I agree with your description of how it’s gone downhill. It’s frustrating when there’s a huge gap in the market for something like that but better for adult learners who only have a little bit of free time every day.

    You’re also validating part of my dissertation (on the role of children’s literature in Irish in promoting more people speaking the language) where I wrote about how young adult books can be very helpful for adult learners too, so go raibh maith agat ar son an pointe sin 😁

    • Finn Longman says:

      To be fair, as a YA author who reads a lot of YA in English as well, I’m maybe not typical in that regard, but I would LOVE to see more fun genre fiction of all kinds in Irish. (Queer historical romance in Irish when??)

      There is SUCH a gap in the market! Especially with Memrise phasing out “community” courses but not having an official Irish course to fill the space :(

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.