“Ellos escriben para el periódico.” It means “they write for the newspaper.” I know my social media apps and Google search history are tracked, but now I am starting to think that Duolingo is spying on me, too. I’ve been using this app to learn the Spanish language since the start of the pandemic. I highly recommend it. In increments of 15 minutes a day, sometimes more if I’m not on deadline for anything, I’ve acquired a solid grasp of conversational and written Spanish.
However, more and more it seems, the app’s questions feel tailored to me individually. That line about writing for the newspaper felt eerily specific among the other phrases and challenges.
“Mi padre sabe leer japonés.”
It means “my father knows how to read Japanese.” Does Duolingo know my stepfather is originally from Japan? He speaks, reads, and writes in Japanese — his first language.
Earlier today I asked Google if Duolingo has a reputation for spying on its users. Here’s what I (think I) learned from that search: For those who haven’t bought the premium subscription, the app may be just another nosy piece of technology that aligns advertisements with its users’ internet habits, disguised as a learning tool or even a kind of game. I paid for the nonadvertisement-saturated version of the app on day one, so I haven’t personally experienced this phenomenon.
Speaking of day one, I hit 200 straight days of Duolingo lessons yesterday. It feels like a feat — and each time that streak climbs by one, I feel like it’s also its own reward.
“Necesito dos bolsas para los tomates.”
It means “I need two bags for the tomatoes.” That is an actual line I had to translate a few days ago. It just feels too specific to be a coincidence. Does Duolingo know that I stop at Amber Waves Farm a few times each week to buy different varieties of tomatoes? I am a little obsessed with tomatoes and yes, I’ve walked away from the farm with two small bags of different varieties of tomatoes.
Then there are the Duolingo notifications. The Duolingo owl, the app’s “maestro de espanol” (Spanish teacher) has become an internet meme at this point. Some people think it is ominous, but mine (again, with the paid version of the app) feel pretty vanilla. “It’s time to practice!” “Don’t lose that 197-day streak!” But others have reported receiving notifications bordering on threats. “Looks like you forgot your Spanish lessons again! You know what happens now.”
In April of 2019, a Mashable writer penned the following: “I used to dread vocabulary quizzes and writing assignments, but somehow my high school Spanish teacher never instilled the same anxiety and guilt that skipping a Duolingo practice session does.”
“Tu haces un sándwich de queso?”
It means “are you making a cheese sandwich?” I kid you not, that one popped up one day while I was babysitting for my sister’s kid, who basically only eats cheese sandwiches.
“Nosotros trabajamos en casa.”
It means “we work at home.” Okay, that one’s pretty obvious these days. Maybe the Duolingo owl is spying on me, but maybe not. Either way, I’ll conclude with this: Spend your quarantine-induced free time wisely by learning another language. Try the app, but be sure to upgrade.
“No te arrepentiras.” It means “you won’t regret it.”
Christine Sampson is The Star’s deputy managing editor. She studied French in high school.