clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

During quarantine, learning games are having their moment, too

Games like Duolingo report sharp increases in new users 

Girl with cell phone
A girl alone with her cell phone
Photo: Ute Grabowsky / Photothek / Getty Images

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Many of us have framed the coronavirus lockdown as an ideal time to tackle long-delayed self-improvement projects, like learning a new language or a musical instrument. Also, a lot of us are spending our time playing video games. But it looks like plenty of people have combined the two, using this time to learn new skills via game-like apps.

Duolingo, for example, is one of the most popular learning games in the world. It poses visual and audio puzzles that build language learning skills without resorting to rote memory work. One common game is selecting from a panel of words to answer a question. Millions of players have worked their way through Duolingo’s fun challenges, which are heavily lathered with game-like rewards, such as earning “gems” and leveling up.

Alan’s been playing the game for nearly a year. But since the COVID-19 lockdown, he’s found new levels of commitment. He’s tripled his daily time with the app, and quadrupled his achievements, measured in experience points (XP).

“I decided to start French around nine months ago,” says Alan, a 27-year-old, who lives in Guatemala City. “Before the lockdown, I was just trying to keep my streak of around 20-30 points per day. I learned a good amount.” He kept his streak up by playing a few minutes at the end of each working day. On March 21, Guatemala introduced a nationwide lockdown.

“Now I stay the whole day in my apartment. I play for 30 minutes per day. I am keeping quite a streak,” says Alan.

He’s not alone. Duolingo’s eponymous publisher tells Polygon that it’s enjoyed a massive global spike in user stats since quarantines were put in place last month. According to the company, new downloads of Duolingo were up 108% globally, and 148% in the United States, between March 9 and March 30.

App Annie, an analytics tool, shows how mobile apps rank against competitors. Its data shows that Duolingo’s ranking in the United States (on iPhone) rose from 168th on March 1, to 97th on March 31.

Duolingo did not release hard numbers of new quarantine users, but as of December 2019, the company reported 30 million monthly active users and more than 300 million total registered users.

Teachers and Kids

The increases are not confined to Duolingo. Its direct competitor, Drops, reported a sharp rise in users around the world in March, with a 55% increase in the United States and a 92% increase in the United Kingdom. Drops markets its app as a “play with your words” educational tool.

The company has relaxed access to the kids version, called Droplets, increasing the player profile limit from two to 50. This allows teachers to use Droplets with remote students. The five-minute time limitation for the free version of Droplets has been waived to allow parents, teachers, and kids to use the app for as long as they want.

Other gamified apps have also seen increases. Music learning game Yousician — think Guitar Hero except with a real guitar — is up from 1,095th to the 406th position on App Annie.

Each of these rises in usage represents someone trying to use a game to learn or improve a skill.

“I had started learning Norwegian on Duolingo a while ago,” says Theresa from North Carolina. “I slacked off, but picked it back up since all this started. It’s a good distraction from the news. Everyone needs to pick up a hobby right now, in my opinion, for their mental health.”

Sarah from England was using the app before the quarantine, but has noticed a change in the last few weeks.

“My husband and I started learning French,” she says. “For a few weeks before the lockdown, I was on a streak, doing 15 minutes a day. I was in the promotion zone [player rankings] every day. But after lockdowns, I’ve played just as much but I’ve been dropping down a lot. There’s definitely more people doing it.”

Extra Time

“We’ve been heartened by the number of language learning companies that have stepped up to offer free resources to educators across the country,” says Howie Berman, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). “I think language learning is so popular right now because people are recognizing the fundamental importance of connections. Language facilitates connections. It’s at the heart of the human experience. As many of us face extended quarantines, we are craving human connections and language plays a critical role in keeping us connected.”

Duolingo says that behavior patterns are changing among established users. Players took twice as many Duolingo lessons during the day in March than they were in February. Previously they were more likely to take their lessons in the morning or in the evening, presumably before or after work or school. Likewise, the surge in U.S. usage has resulted in a sharp increase in players who wish to learn Spanish: up from 36% to 50% of total users.

New quarantine users are less likely to be interested in learning a language for travel purposes, than in prior months, according to Duolingo. The company tells Polygon that its category of school learners is up 15%, while travel learners are down 8%.

“Quarantine has given me a small kick to start up again after letting the app sit there just on my phone,” says Annika from Germany. She’s learning Japanese and Spanish, and says the extra time she’s playing helps her “not to forget” the lessons so often.

Duolingo head of PR Sam Dalsimer says: “For adults, people are trying to use this time to seek self-improvement and self-care. Establishing a routine of doing a Duolingo lesson every day helps some people feel good about themselves. Learning a new language is also a great way to connect with other people and cultures in a time when we’re all isolated from each other.”

Even professional language educators are playing along.

“I’m usually surrounded by the people dealing with a foreign language, whether as instructors or learners,” says Amin, an English teacher based in Tehran. “Now that these people are in quarantine, they look for some sort of game to be entertained.

“I’ve taken this chance to invite my colleagues and students to join Duolingo,” Amin says. “Now they’re obsessed with it. I can see that mere entertainment can give them a feeling of waste. So, they are looking for something not only amusing but also productive.”

Lakeisha from Washington DC is another long-term user who’s upped her game, with an eye to a return to normality. “I enjoy trying to score as high as I can, and beat other Duolingo users, each week. If I can go back to work speaking Spanish, whenever that will be; that would be so cool.”

But Berman from the ACTFL warns that foreign language learning games have their limitations. “How you use language in a limited, computer-based environment is one thing,” says Berman. “But once you’re out of that environment, can you actually use the language in a real-world setting? Technology can and should be used to enhance language instruction. It is not a goal in and of itself; rather it is a tool that supports the process of language learning.”