Duocon 2021 Recap and Highlights

On Friday August 20th Duolingo hosted their annual Duocon. This year it took the form of a free event on YouTube. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, or just skip to the talk you’re interested in by going to duolingo.com/duocon.

When I heard about Duocon, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the program. I had a feeling it would mostly be a big commercial for the company. And while it definitely was that, I was really impressed with Duolingo’s approach to the event that balanced product promotion with humor and really interesting tidbits about linguistics, technology and even cooking! In short, it was a language nerd’s delight. Here are the highlights:

  • Duolingo Plus: A Deep Dive into New Features
  • Language and Belonging
  • Teaching Non-Latin Writing Systems
  • How Linguistics Can Help You Learn a Language
  • Inside Birdbrain, the AI Behind the Duolingo App
  • Baking with Sohla El-Waylly
  • Project World Character Voices
  • State of Duolingo
  • Interview with Luis Von Ahn
  • Duocon 2022

This year the event was hosted by Patton Oswalt. I thoroughly enjoyed occasionally closing my eyes and imagining that Remy from Ratatouille was cracking jokes about the pandemic while simultaneously dropping truth bombs about language, communication and unity. His comic relief before, in between, and after the talks along with colorful short intermission videos of Duo and his crew set to catchy music (which at the moment of writing this blog, is still stuck in my head and may very well stay there until the next Duocon) all really broke things up into digestible chunks and kept the audience engaged throughout the program. But I guess I should have expected that from the company that invests so much into making their app addictive and engaging.

Duolingo Plus: A Deep Dive into New Features

And let the commercial begin! Edwin Bodge (Senior Product Manager) and Angela Huang (Product Designer) talked about new features on Duolingo Plus, the paid version of the app.

New feature #1: Mistakes Inbox. Mistakes Inbox was introduced as a place where learners can review all of their mistakes in one spot. Every time you make a mistake, the app will save that sentence to you Mistake Inbox. A sad little broken heart icon will appear next to your language tree with a number under it indicating how many mistakes are waiting to be reviewed. When you finish reviewing them all, the heart will turn that happy shade of mastered skill gold.

I personally think this is a great idea. Mistakes you make in a language have the potential of becoming the bits and pieces of the language that you will never forget, no matter how many years go by. So it’s definitely an effective use of your time to review your mistakes. On the other hand, if a person were to let their mistakes build up and the little number under that broken heart got too big, I think it could have the potential for being demoralizing.

New feature #2: Legendary Level. Duolingo took their inspiration for this feature from boss battles in video games. It’s a sixth, final and harder level for each skill. Users are only allowed three mistakes and all the hints are removed. Additionally, the content for these lessons is selected by an AI algorithm that favors content which was challenging for you as you worked through levels 1-5 of the skill. Learners who make it all the way through are rewarded with a little sparkly purple crown. Commence the little dopamine hits!

I was actually upset at first when this feature showed up on my app because it meant that all of my progress in all of my language trees in all of my languages had suddenly been reduced. Although previously I had finished the Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Latin trees, now I hadn’t finished any courses at all. 😢 But when I started playing the legendary levels I really started liking it. They are more challenging which added some variety to my sessions and quickly revealed the skills that I was weaker in and needed to work on. I know it’s just a ploy to keep me playing Duolingo longer, but on the other hand, now I have a bunch of sparkly purple skills on my Turkish tree! Yay, dopamine! 👑👑👑

They also announced the Duolingo Family Plan wherein you can add accounts for up to six people into one plan. At the moment there are 1.9 million users on Duolingo Plus. The company hopes that by giving people an option to share the cost with others, that number will grow to include millions more who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Language and Belonging

Next was a truly fascinating talk Dr. Jessi Grieser (Associate Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville). She pointed out that language is more than just communication of information. We use language to generate a sense of belonging, to show who belongs in our group and who doesn’t. And it’s more than just belonging to the group of those who speak the same language. Within each language there are other smaller and smaller groups where the way we use a language marks us as belonging, or not belonging to the group.

She talked about a unique way she learned to use the word “sieve!”, using the word y’all even though she’s not originally from the American south, regional accents, social class as it affects language, and even what key smashing and emojis say about the groups we belong to. I must say, this was one of my favorite talks from Duocon. If you want an insightful glimpse into sociolinguistics, this roughly 16 minute talk is well worth your time.

Teaching Non-Latin Writing Systems

This one was interesting to me because one of my favorite parts of learning a language is learning its writing system. That’s why I’m especially drawn to languages like Arabic and Russian. Chris D (Staff Software Engineer) began by pointing out that when you study a language with the same writing system as your own, you can easily look up or read a word even if you have no idea what it means. But since Duolingo teaches many languages with different writing systems, they’ve had to develop ways to teach those systems in addition to teaching the language.

He said the Duolingo team start tackling this problem in the Japanese lessons first, since (1) Japanese is an extremely popular language on Duolingo, and (2) it has a famously challenging writing system, which is actually made up of three writing systems (Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji) all used at once. He said in order to read authentic Japanese content, one needs to get comfortable jumping between three writing systems without any spaces between words. At the moment, reading lessons are either available or soon to be available in Japanese, Korean, Russian, Hebrew, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, Ukrainian and Yiddish, and during this talk he gave interesting little cliff notes into all of these writing systems.

How Linguistics Can Help You Learn a Language

This was my other favorite talk from Duocon. Gretchen McCulloch is a well respected linguist, bestselling author (Because Internet) and podcast host (Lingthusiasm). She started her talk by asking “What is language?” She brought out that we often think of language as being neatly divided into two categories: reading (formal) and spoken (informal). But in reality there is a whole range of formality vs. informality in both written and spoken language, depending on content and context.

She also spent some time giving the audience a crash course in linguistics. Why is it that in English and many Romance languages the letters ‘C’ and ‘G’ do so many different things? What’s the difference between a high involvement conversation style and a high considerateness conversation style? (This one was a huge eye-opener for me, and I hope that what I learned will help me not to be so frustrated when people repeatedly interrupt me in the future.) Why do Thai speakers type ‘5555’ to mean ‘hahahaha’?

And of course, the best quote from all of Duocon:

“The first thing to know about informal speech… is that it happens with our human bodies. When we produce sounds, we’re basically manipulating a living meat clarinet.”

Pure poetry, Gretchen. Thank you.

If you only have time to watch a couple of the talks, my personal recommendation as a language nerd would be Gretchen McCulloch’s and Dr. Jessie Grieser’s.

Inside Birdbrain, the AI Behind the Duolingo App

Dr. Burr Settles (Research Director) started by reminding the audience of Duolingo’s mission statement, which is “to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available.” His talk was focused mainly on the “best education” part of that mission statement. Enter Birdbrain, Duolingo’s new and improved AI. This talk was filled with some pretty interesting explanations of how the AI under the hood of Duolingo works.

Dr. Settles mentioned that a good teacher knows a lot about their field, knows how to keep the student engaged and knows how to get inside his student’s head and discern what he already knows, what he struggles with and how to help him understand. That’s the example they’ve tried to emulate with their AI. I actually didn’t realize just how much AI is used in Duolingo, from what content you practice, to ongoing course development, to which messages you get sent in your practice reminders.

But the most interesting part for me was when he explained the “Zone of Proximal Development”, which is basically finding the sweet spot for learning. If material is too hard or too easy, little progress is made. Studies have shown that the best progress in any kind of learning is when the subject is just past the edge of what you’re already comfortable with. That was a good reminder for me not to get comfortable in my language studies, but keep pushing the boundaries so that it stays challenging.

Baking with Sohla El-Waylly

I must admit, I kind of checked out mentally for this one. Sohla El-Waylly gave a cooking lesson on how to make a tapioca base South American cheesy bread. Don’t get me wrong. There was nothing wrong with her presentation and if you like cheesy bread recipes you should definitely check out the video. But it was hard for me to stay interested since cooking is not really my thing. I’m sure the idea was to break things up and intersperse very deep subjects with something lighter and more fun, which I’m sure this accomplished for many people who love cooking and also love cheesy bread. Again, the Duolingo team understands how to hold people’s attention.

Project World Character Voices

Emily Chiu (Senior Creative Producer) and Dr. Kevin Lenzo (Senior Staff Research Scientist) explained some of the challenges that the Duolingo team had to overcome behind the scenes in creating unique voices for each of their characters in some of the more popular languages like English, Spanish, French, German and Japanese.

Emily Chiu talked about the process of creating characters that would be memorable, brandable, but also relatable. She talked about how the company consulted with creators of kid’s shows such as Sesame Street and hired a casting director to find the right voices to make their characters come to life. It was also interesting to hear her describe the challenge of casting voice actors for languages you don’t understand!

Dr. Lenzo talked about the mechanical challenges of creating computer voices. The ‘P’ in ‘peak’ and ‘speak’ may look the same, but they are pronounced slightly differently. The same goes for the first and last ‘R’ in ‘reader’. If the sound is off, a native speaker will sense it, even though he may not be able to put into words why it sounds wrong. There is also the problem of sense stress. There is a difference between saying “Hello Kevin.” and “Hello, KEVIN.” It was interesting to learn about the challenges of getting a computer to do what humans do without even thinking about it.

State of Duolingo

Dr. Luis Von Ahn (CEO & co-founder of Duolingo) discussed the company’s overall strategy by breaking it down into five sub-strategies:

  1. Grow users. The company is always working to make their app more enjoyable so that more people try it, don’t stop using it, and tell their friends about it. The app currently has about 40 million monthly active learners.
  2. Teach better. He said the largest team at Duolingo is the one dedicated to improving the teaching quality of the app.
  3. Grow subscribers. Only 5% of Duolingo users have a paid subscription (Duolingo Plus). The way he looks at it, those users are helping support the rest of the users, including those who just can’t afford a paid subscription. So while thanking the paid subscribers, he admitted the company would like to get more users who are willing to pay for Duolingo Plus.
  4. Become the proficiency standard. He said that currently if someone were to ask you how much French you know, the common answer might be something like, “I’m intermediate”, or “I took four years of French in high school”, neither of which mean very much. He then said, “We’d like it to be the case that in a few years if somebody asks you how much French you know, you say ‘I’m a Duolingo 65’ or ‘I’m a Duolingo 85’ or something.” To that end the company is working on developing a proficiency score feature for the app.
  5. Expanding beyond language learning. The company has already launched Duolingo ABC, which is a literacy app for English speakers. Later in the talk he announced that the company will also be releasing an app for learning math as well.

He also talked about the company’s desire to keep increasing the level of proficiency their courses can take a person to in a language. To that end he discussed the new speaking practice feature, which is available now on iOS and will soon be available on Android. Their hope is that this will improve the app’s famous weak spot which is helping a person improve their conversation skills in a language. I’m sure it will be fun and engaging, but I remain skeptical that technology is at a point where you can replace conversation with a human being with speaking to your phone and expect to get the same results.

He also discussed a new feature called “Hoots”. Now this sounds very promising. Users are sent a daily writing prompt, saying something like, “What did you have for breakfast today?” or “Please describe your hometown.” You write out your answer in the target language and the AI immediately corrects it for you. Keeping a journal in your target language is a tried and true method for improving writing skills, getting more comfortable with a language and hanging onto vocabulary that you’ve learned. To also be able to have it corrected instantly would be a huge bonus. I think this feature is a fantastic idea. So far it is only available on the web version of the app in French, but hopefully they can roll it out in other languages soon.

Interview with Luis Von Ahn – Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is a South African comedian, television host, writer, producer, political commentator, and actor. He speaks English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Tswana, Tsonga, and German, but also threw out some Portuguese and Spanish during the interview. I really enjoyed hearing his positive, deeply appreciative view of languages and the people who speak them.

Watch the interview to find out Trevor’s thoughts on:

  • Why Afrikaans sounds like drunken Dutch
  • How to not get mugged in South Africa
  • What language is he the funniest in?
  • How learning a language is connected with humility
  • How language divides but also unites people
  • What his favorite insult in any language is
  • How learning another language leads to having a dual identity
  • How much of his success he attributes to luck and how much to hard work (the answer may surprise you)

Duocon 2022

I thoroughly enjoyed nerding out on languages and AI for nearly three hours at Duocon 2021. The company already has plans to host Duocon 2022 in Brooklyn, New York as a hybrid in person/streamed event. I’ve already registered to watch it live and look forward to what they have in store next year!

3 thoughts on “Duocon 2021 Recap and Highlights

  1. The two talks that you recommended we’re the 2 that I thought sounded the most interesting too! The Interview seems like it’s going to be pretty entertaining too. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!


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