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The most epic linguistic battle
I started using Duolingo again.
My everlasting quest to become Italian by osmosis picked up pace in the vacuum of sabbatical life. The green bird app icon teased me. It had been a couple of years since I used it last. On a whim, I opened it.
The app looked familiar, but felt different. Immediately, I realized it felt more like a game and less like a language app.
I got hooked on a pairing game. Match the English word with its Italian equivalent. It reminded me of the memory games I played in primary school. Back then, I had a prodigious memory–my skills amazed my teachers. So much potential.
Anyway, I became addicted to the game’s increasing difficulty. I had 105 seconds to match 80 pairs, then 100, 120, 140, and 150. With Formula 1 driver reflexes, I had to match words: Dog-Cane, Girl-Ragazza, Monday-Lunedí. The game conveniently prompted you to buy an extra minute with gems if you needed more time. And it invited you to buy more gems with your cold hard cash.
They have leagues now. A group of random learners competing against each other for linguistic supremacy. I didn’t pay too much attention to the scoreboard at first. It’s far more constructive to compete with yourself than to compete with others. You see, I’m an enlightened man.
All of a sudden, I found myself on top of the leaderboard by virtue of my addiction. Not a bad byproduct, I thought.
Then, Thursday evening came.
I got a notification: “Oh, no Harrow has taken over your #1 spot.” Instantaneously, as if I'd been thrown into a cold plunge, my competitive instincts awakened. Enlightenment be damned–I’m a competitive person. I have to win.
Harrow984306 had built nearly a 1,000 point lead. I spent the next hour trying to overtake him, but he preserved his lead. By the end of the day (and I mean midnight), I had managed to scrape 500 points off his lead.
Friday comes and I decide that beating Harrow984306 in the Duolingo Silver League was going to become my life’s mission. Figuring out my future could wait. I had a league to win.
I proceeded to barrel through more lessons fast and furious. I learned colors, questions, and prepositions on my way to reclaim my #1 spot. A couple hours later Harrow takes the lead again. Unsettled by his persistence, I decide to take the lead again, this time surpassing him by one point like the petty bitch I can be.
Camilo: 4523 | Harrow: 4522.
Harrow immediately signs on and takes the lead again. Who is this Harrow man? What does he do? Is he a heart surgeon? Was he in the middle of open heart surgery when his Apple Watch delivered the news that I had dethroned him? Did he consequently excuse himself for a “bio break,” so that he could take the lead again while their patient died waiting for his surgeon to complete the sentence: Le calze sono grigie?1
Oh my god, did I indirectly kill someone?
I begin rethinking my strategy. This cretin clearly has time in his hands, like me, or no sense of duty. Forcing an all out brawl trading lessons for points would be folly. I was going to ambush him by passing him shortly before the weekly league ended Sunday night. He would never see it coming. Sunday would become my D-Day.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday morning I had completed enough lessons to shorten his lead, but not quite enough to prove a menace. I feigned my surrender.
As I open the app, my heart rate is up, my hands begin to clam, and my cheeks are radiators. I am determined to prove my linguistic supremacy, cunning strategy, and remarkable persistence.
It’s 6:40pm. I launch my attack. My brain forging new neural connections under the heat of competition. My hands are shaking. Precision is mandatory for maximum points. I could feel my increasingly exhausted brain tell me “che cazzo fai?” as I blitzed through my lessons.
By 6:51pm I had taken the high ground and found an unassailable position. Not only had I retaken the lead, but I had built a 60 point cushion. Short of a miracle, I had successfully ambushed Harrow and given him no time to react.
6:59pm: My lead has widened. I had defeated Harrow by nearly 300 points. I had won this linguistic battle.
Seattle would close its main streets and throw me a parade. Millions of tiny green confetti would rain over The Emerald City. I would wave on top of a parade bus in the company of my family hoisting the Silver League trophy while the Duolingo mascot would douse me in champagne.
7:00pm came by. The league countdown had gone from “1 hour” to “59 minutes.”
Shit, I misinterpreted the end time for the league.
In the midst of my bewilderment, Harrow was mounting a furious comeback. At this point, I had no choice–I had to keep doing lessons until he gave up or time ran out.
By 7:27pm I had been able to preserve my lead and break Harrow’s will. That little green online dot in the lower right of his profile picture that menacingly warned “I’m still here,” had finally extinguished.
Over the next 30 minutes I would check the app compulsively for signs of one last Hail-Mary by Harrow. But alas, his silence was his surrender. 8:00pm finally struck. I won (for real this time).
Camilo: 6678 | Harrow: 6017.
I let out a sigh of relief. A serene satisfaction took over me. I did it. The thrill of victory. Now I could play Queen’s We Are the Champions.
I get how silly this all is. Made up rules with made up points for a made up game stirring an absurd compulsion for excellence. That’s precisely why Duolingo designed it this way.
And I did get more comfortable with my Italian. I had a speaking lesson last week, and my expanded vocabulary made me feel more confident. It also made me realize that in my pursuit for equanimity and detachment, I may be lobotomizing a pretty big part of my personality: I’m a competitive person. Competition drives me towards excellence. Whether I’m competing with myself or the Harrow’s of the world.
A couple of days later, I went to grab coffee. My barista courteously asked me: “What did you do this weekend?”
I said: “Venni, vidi, vinsi”2
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This means: The socks are grey. Which is absolutely useless if you find yourself in Italy unless you went into a wine-fueled bender and at some point in the night you took your grey socks off and are now desperately trying to find them. Only then.
I said this in my mind. But it totally counts. Just go with it.