Write It Sideways

The Duolingo Guide to Writing Productivity

One thing I love about Canada is the opportunity for my children to receive a free bilingual education through the French Immersion program available at many public schools.

Some say, “You’ll never use French unless you want to work for the government or be a French teacher,” but actually, I’m not worried about whether my kids use their French in any practical way.

What compels me most about a bilingual education is this: learning in another language teaches you more than just the subject matter you’re studying. A successful French Immersion student needs to learn a lot of problem-solving skills (for example, how to complete a difficult French homework assignment when your parents don’t speak French) and develop good study habits. And because the option to drop out of the program is ever present, students need to find an inner motivation to persevere, whether that be because they have a specific career goal in mind or simply because they’re the type of person who values a healthy challenge.

These skills and habits transfer to other domains of life. For example, some of the skills and habits needed to learn a second language are similar to those needed to be a more productive writer.

Duolingo to the Rescue

With one child already in the French Immersion program and two more headed that direction, this is my chance to learn along with them. To refresh my own very shaky French and start building more vocabulary, I’ve been using a popular language-learning app known as Duolingo. (The app is free and I’m in no way affiliated with it.)

Duolingo won’t make you bilingual on its own, but it can teach you a base vocabulary, provide you with a general understanding of sentence structure, and act as a launch pad for further learning.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned by studying French on Duolingo—lessons that also hold value for those of us who call ourselves writers:

1. Never underestimate the value of practice.

A lot of writers just want to see their work in print; they don’t really see the value in writing stuff that will never be read by others. I used to be one of those writers, but now I know from experience that taking time to practice is the only way to change your mentality from “Must get published” to “Must write something true and meaningful.” That’s the difference between mediocre writing and great writing.

In Duolingo, each learning module has “strength bars” that show you which skills you need to practice at what time. If you don’t practice, you lose one strength bar from several modules each day.

While there’s no rule that says writers must write every day, we can learn a thing or two from these “strength bars.” Practicing writing regularly will help establish a routine and improve your writing abilities, even if your words never make it out to the world.

Take Action: Incorporate more practice into your writing routine. Try writing prompts, freewrite for ten minutes when you wake up or before you go to bed, start a blog, write a poem, or just jot down keywords.

2. Ditch your comfort zones.

We writers love our comfort zones because they’re, well, comfortable! We like the validation of being good at something. We don’t like the feeling of failure.

The levels in Duolingo, for obvious reasons, get harder as you progress. The higher your level in the program, the easier earlier modules become when you go back to practice them. It’s easy to keep treading water and feeling successful with those easier levels, but unless you challenge yourself to learn more complex vocabulary and sentence structure, you’ll become stagnant.

This is a great reminder to continually challenge yourself as a writer.

Take Action: Challenge yourself to write more quickly (if you tend to be very slow), to write more slowly and thoughtfully (if you tend to overlook typos and structural issues or rush your work into the world), to write something you know nothing about, to write in a genre you’ve never written in, or to write from an unusual point of view. If you’ve never published anything, challenge yourself to get a short piece of writing published online or in a magazine.

3. Take advantage of the resources available to you.

Duolingo’s format is pretty basic and leaves a lot of unanswered questions about why a translation is right or wrong, which leaves you two choices: (1) look to outside sources to answer your questions as they arise, or (2) stick solely with what Duolingo teaches you, and hope for the best.

I do love Duolingo, but it’s foolish to expect proficiency in a language when you choose to rely entirely on one source of information. You have to take the initiative to do some of the legwork yourself.

We writers today have innumerable resources available to us: everything from blogs and websites to podcasts, YouTube videos, books from the library or secondhand stores, and local writing groups and workshops. It’s great to have a favourite writing manual or go-to blog, but sometimes we forget to take advantage of all the resources we have at our fingertips.

Take Action: Aim to discover a new writing resource each week. Most of these can be free (visit your library or try coordinating a resource swap with a group of writer-friends), but on occasion you could also treat yourself to a purchased resource.

4. Make it fun and rewarding.

Duolingo is addictive because it’s presented something like a game and provides rewards for completing levels. It motivates you to learn by making learning fun; if it weren’t fun, it wouldn’t be nearly so popular.

Similarly, we can motivate ourselves to write by making writing fun and rewarding. You might promise to reward yourself after finishing the first draft of a story or novel, or for every number of pages you write. A reward could be something as small as a new notebook or pen for achieving smaller goals, or something as big as a writing retreat once you finish a novel.

Take Action: Try making writing more rewarding by making writing more fun: time yourself to see how much you can write in an hour; write in a location you’ve never written in before; try “writing” a scene by speaking it into a voice recorder.

5. Persevere through the difficulties.

Although some Duolingo modules are easy, others are extremely challenging. I don’t enjoy failing certain modules multiple times before they start to make some sort of sense, and when the strength bars go down on those trickier modules, I don’t really look forward to working through them yet again. The thing is, if you don’t persevere long enough to complete these skills, you can’t move on to the next level. And if you don’t continue to practice these skills, you lose them.

Perseverance is learned, especially when it comes to writing. It’s so easy to start a piece, but it takes practice to get in the habit of forcing yourself to finish—especially if it’s a long project.

Take Action: Identify just one thing in your writing life that you’ve given up on because it seemed too difficult, then commit to doing whatever it takes to finish it. It might be a half-written short story, a novel you outlined but never started writing, or an article you wrote but were never able to publish in a magazine.

Even if you get through the very last module in Duolingo, you’re still not at the true finish line. In fact, there is no finish line in learning a language or in one’s writing journey. No matter how far you get, there’s always a whole world of learning still out there for the taking.

Thank goodness for that!