I did a speedrun on Duolingo. Here’s what I learnt

There probably is a saying that goes, for every game that exists, there is a speedrunning community for it. Apparently, this extends to some language learning methods as well, particularly those which provide a gamified experience to users. With its own category on Twitch, I knew what I had to do on there for once — speedrun one of these.

As you may or may not know, Duolingo is perhaps the largest language learning application developed, with dozens of millions of users learning from at least one of the dozens of languages offered on there. While I have done a review of this application before, I decided to give this a go anyway when it comes to speedrunning. Anyway, it does appear to have a sizable community dedicated to speedrunning Duolingo.

The rules, sort of

While there are not really any official rules when it comes to speedrunning Duolingo, most users tend to start the timer upon choosing the first skill on the language skill tree, and completing every exercise without skipping until they complete the first checkpoint test. The timer stops when after showing that they have passed that test.

The last six skills before the first checkpoint

Now, the grey areas. When you hover your cursor on a word, it shows a hint — the translation of the word. This is the part I was confused about, because while some called it ‘cheating’, others might just let it slide. I did inadvertently ‘cheat’ a couple of times during the run, however, but since these speedruns are unofficial and not listed as a category on speedrun.com, I think after-the-fact that they could get a pass.

One example of “cheating”. By right, I was not supposed to do this, but since there are no truly official rules to speedrun Duolingo, some might not be too harsh on this, or so I think.

Of course, one could try to do a 100% run, or even a full gold run, but I have not really seen any videos or streams do this before, especially on more established languages on the platform like Spanish. So, for my case, I decided to attempt a Finnish Checkpoint 1% speedrun.

The run

Prior to this, I have been to Finland in end-2017, and learnt a bit of Finnish through the Teach Yourself series, and the textbook Suomen mestari. So while I have learnt the “Kiitos” and the “Tervetuloa” here and there, anything extra, like grammar, is a bit rusty during my attempt in 20 November 2021.

The skill tree leading up to the first checkpoint had 12 skills and the checkpoint test, totaling 44 exercises to do. These skills range from basic greetings to a topic curiously known as “barbecue”. So how long do you estimate this would take? 2 hours, thereabouts?

During the run, I found myself tripping up occasionally as I tried to infer the translations from Finnish to English and vice versa. Some were accidental mistakes, but some were more rather, recall errors. While some overlook these errors as learning opportunities, in a speedrun, this turned into something like a “burden”, as every mistake could add up in the timer. Yup, there is starkly more emphasis on shaving off the minutes and seconds in runs like this.

The checkpoint test was essentially a test of memory. And with a good few dozen words learnt throughout the run, it did really tax on my memory. One such example is shown here:

Perhaps one of the most memorable memory lapses. An oxymoron, I know. What I had in mind was probably pöytä, the Finnish word for “table”. The correct word for “bed” is sänky.

I did finish (or Finnish) off with 1 hour 20 minutes and 51.97 seconds, a decent timing for a first run, but I did not really feel I learnt much during that time.

The aftermath of the speedrun

What I learnt

In this 80-minute run, while I did learn new Finnish words by inference or observation, I did not really feel that this new knowledge stuck, as evident in my recall issues encountered in the checkpoint test.

However, since I did this on stream, I did have a Finnish speaker teach me about the pronunciations in the chat. This was when I started to remember the stuff I did in 2017. The main remark I made about the pronunciation was how I liked Finnish and its stress on the first syllable of a word, with a secondary stress on the subsequent “subunits” of a compound word. What I learned was mainly how to pronounce the diphthongs “öy” and “yö”, something that does not have an equivalent in most languages I learn or know. Perhaps this was why the word pöytä seemed so memorable.

Being completely new to Finnish on Duolingo, what I learned to figure were some grammatical patterns, such as the verb to be in present tense:

Verb to be in present tense, Finnish

Several of these were quite nicely identifiable in patterns, something which I found I really enjoyed when learning languages. Question words, some adjectives, and demonstrative pronouns were some examples I could think of where I could rely on “pattern recognition” to learn Finnish. However, this did not mean that I could continually rely on this method the further I advance in Finnish.

This just about wraps up what I learned from the speedrun (on Duolingo). It being Duolingo, and just about the starting parts of Finnish, I think it was natural to have really low expectations of what I was going to learn from it. After all, when the gear shifts to prioritise speed, there could be less emphasis placed on actually learning. However, having done a couple of speedruns in other games before, I think it is still a nice experience, and I might just do it again on camera, or on stream.

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