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XP is helping me to learn German


Now everyone has agreed that Britain leaving the EU is going to go horribly, all that’s left is to argue over whose fault it will be when the nation tumbles off a cliff edge into the dust of irrelevance. Runners include: David Cameron (the absolute plum who thought calling the referendum would be a fool-proof wheeze for uniting his Europe-torn party and shoring up his own position), Theresa May (the absolute plum who thinks Brexit can be left in the safe hands of David Davis and Boris Johnson), and David Davis and Boris Johnson (the absolute plums who are David Davis and Boris Johnson).

The problem is, no one serious believed it would happen so no one serious made a plan, leaving the driving seat free for the transcendently unserious Brexiters, who also don’t have a plan but do not seem to care. Like a badly planned stag do in Prague, their entire itinerary consisted of 1) down Article 50 immediately, 2) aggravate some foreigners. And now we’re all hungover, running out of cash, universally hated and with no idea how to get anywhere. GOOD ONE, LADS. GREAT BANTS. TOP GAME.

This is why I’m taking things into my own hands. I am doing the patriotic thing, and knowing that Britain needs at least an extra 400 negotiators to make this work, I am learning German. Keine Panik! Ich habe das! It might seem a tall order to go from scratchy long-forgotten GCSE standard to diplomatic fluency inside the 18 months of treaty-wrangling time we’ve got left (18 months oh my good Christ what are we doing) but I have a secret weapon, and my secret weapon is a small green owl called Duo who lives in my phone, in an app called Duolingo.

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Obviously this is from the French version.

Actually my original reasons for picking up Duolingo were not quite so national-interest minded. What happened was, I went to Germany and spent every day in a rapture of cringe at my inability to communicate. Not a total inability, mind – over half the German population speaks English, so things like checking into a hotel, ordering in a restaurant or hiring a car were all within reach most of the time.

But what about when you need to explain something outside the standard tourist remit? Or, worse, when you use Google Translate to book some bikes in grammatically on-point German over the phone, and the owner of the hire place expects you to pull off bilingual smalltalk when you arrive? Awful. What about when you just want to be able to do a bit of good old honest eavesdropping?

So I gave Duolingo a try. And then, Duolingo took over my life. Duolingo’s promise is “to give everyone access to a private tutor experience through technology.” In just a few minutes of practice a day, the app claims it can make you fluent in one of the 26 languages it offers. But Duolingo isn’t just accessible: it’s gamified. And this is where I started to go wrong.

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God, Gamification used to be everywhere. Remember this?

At first, it was just a matter of meeting my daily XP target. But then I realised there were badges. In-game currency. A leaderboard! Suddenly I was spending two hours a day furiously practising my German, trying to hold off challengers to my top score. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win, I thought. And then I thought, But it does really. I wasn’t acquiring a language now: I was playing a game, and all my rivals had to be smashed.

This means I was seething through lessons so fast I was barely thinking about what I was learning. Which is fortunate, because some of the things Duolingo wants you to translate and repeat are mildly disturbing. Will I ever have cause to say “The women are alone”? Not impossible I suppose, and it could even happen in a non-sinister setting. How about “The man is following”? Bit creepy, hard to see that coming up in a context that doesn’t involve police. Then there’s “My wife was eaten”, which seems like it belongs in a module called “Contact the Embassy”.

But I plough on, racking up XP and collecting Lingots (the app’s currency) so I can spend Lingots so I can win a stupid badge called “Big Spender”. I buy streak freezes so I can win one called “Wizard”. I hunch over my phone as the XP deadline ticks up on Sunday evening, churning through practices to make sure some A-hole called Ladis doesn’t steal my lead and deny me the “Inner Circle” award for highest weekly total. I’m seven per cent fluent in German! Twelve per cent! Now I’m eighteen per cent fluent!

Because, weird as it all is, I think this is working. OK, no, I won’t be bowling into the Department for Business and sorting out the Anglo-German car exports issue. Unless they need someone to bark “DAS AUTO IST GUT” until the other party is worn down. But thanks to the badges and the XP and the desire to beat Ladis, I’m beginning to know German. Which makes me think: maybe the problem with Brexit isn’t that the UK is treating it like a TOP GAME, but the opposite. If it was a game, there’s be some kind of effort to win. (Feel bad, Ladis.) If it was a game, we’d be taking it seriously.



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