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Meet My Italian Teacher, He’s an Owl

May 17, 2014


By Sarah Vander Schaaff

For the past month, I have been thinking about my interview with literacy expert, Peggy Kaye (LEARN WITH HOMER) who reminded me that children sometimes feel vulnerable when learning a new skill.

I had forgotten that sense of fear; a worry that one will never understand.

I’ve been reminded of it now each night that I practice my Italian, a hobby I picked up again after realizing it had been ten years and two kids since I first made it a goal to learn the language.

When I first started, I bought a textbook and dictionaries and took the “T” once a week for a class in Boston. Now, I have my iPad, the Duolingo app, and a green owl with a sweatband who serves as my electronic coach, reminding me each day to earn my targeted 20 points.


Duolingo was created by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Luis von Ahn along with one of his students. They wanted to give people a way to learn a second language that wasn’t as expensive as what was already on the market, and that could be used on a smartphone. Last year, Duolingo was named the free iPhone app of the year.  And according to a study cited on the site’s webpage, 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to one 11-week semester of a university class in the subject.

I’ve not reached 34 hours. I do know how to say “We are not chickens,” and a few more useful phrases, but so far working on the app has felt like being tossed into cold water and left to doggie paddle. There are no gentle transitions into the language; from the get-go, one is expected to piece together meaning and figure things out. It’s a radical change from how was taught French, a language I never mastered. And right now, I’m glad this experience has not much in common with my eighth grade class with Madame Voezel.

I have only begun testing my skills against a bot within the app, but have not taken advantage of the app’s more social aspects, including the ability to play or compete against a friend in another location. The gamification of learning may be a component of this language app some relish, but it’s not in my comfort zone.

I’ve known that about myself for a while, but it was interesting to see how this app played out with my two children when they happened to join me one Sunday afternoon.

It started when my five year old came over the see what I was up to on my iPad. She sat on my lap, took the device from my hands, and asked if she could push the buttons when I answered. She sailed through the app, fearlessly submitting my answers before I had my usual time to hesitate and double-check.  We sometimes got things wrong, and as a penalty, lost one of the three hearts we’d started the round with.

By the end of her time with me, she was copying my Italian.

She eventually left, and a few minutes later, my nine year old joined me.

“What happens if you lose all your hearts?” she asked me.  I told her you’d have to start again.

“Never get me this app,” she told me sternly. The prospect of losing all her hearts, of failing essentially, would make her too upset.

My two children’s temperaments were evidenced so clearly in their reactions to this app, and as many parents will say, “They’ve been like this since they were babies.”

My deliberate, careful, not-wanting-to fail older child, who also possesses extraordinary will-power, was turned-off by the prospect of utter failure.

My fearless, impulsive, risk-taking younger child, who is willing to jump before she looks and who would eat dessert for breakfast if she could, had no concern for that prospect.

Would my older child have enjoyed the app more if there were never the risk of losing all her hearts? Will the younger one grow more cautious with age?

Will any of us ever learn Italian?

A few days ago, I lay in bed, ready to fall asleep, when the little Owl hounded me into working on my 20 points. I slogged through the first 10 points, and then started the next round. I was tired and got careless, lost two hearts and then touched the iPad by accident and lost my third. Back to the beginning I went. I got near the end once more, longing for sleep, when I lost all three hearts once more.

And that was when I felt like a kid: tired, frustrated, ready for homework to end, and acutely afraid that I may “never get it.”

I tried once more. Maybe the app got slightly easier, responding to my struggles, but somehow, I got to the end. All three hearts still mine.

Lesson learned.


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 *photo credit, Il Duomo, by Marcus Obal. 




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