Duolingo Needs to Chill

Enough with the passive-aggressive notifications, Duo

Angela Lashbrook
Published in
6 min readDec 3, 2020
Closeup of the green owl icon of Duolingo.
Image courtesy of Duolingo.

A few months before I went on a much-needed vacation to Mexico City in 2018, I tried Duolingo, the ubiquitous language-learning app, to gently push my Spanish skills into something resembling respectability. But I generally dislike phone games, which meant I didn’t love the app, which gamifies language education through exercises and achievements. I fell off, as many of us fledgling second-language learners do.

Duolingo did not take it well. After ignoring the app’s rude emails (“Learning Spanish requires daily practice. Practice now?” “We haven’t seen you in a while.” “Keep Duo happy!”) and failing to log into the game for about a month, the app sent me one last, passive-aggressive-as-hell notification.

“These reminders don’t seem to be working. We’ll stop sending them for now.”

Well, jeez. I made that little green owl cry. I failed at making myself into a more educated citizen and traveler and didn’t even respond to Duo the Multilingual Owl’s attempts to get me back in the game. It legitimately made me feel kind of bad, like I was lazy and unable to keep up with my goals. Duo, the pathetic, almost menacing owl, is so liberal with its guilt trips that it’s even the subject of a meme.

Instead of recommitting to daily Duolingo Spanish lessons, I deleted the app.

Well, jeez. I made that little green owl cry.

Duolingo’s attempts to reengage me relied on what’s known as “guilt appeal” marketing tactics. It was a risk, and it failed. In many cases, the guilt appeal can work, especially when employed by nonprofits looking to elicit sympathy, and donations, for their cause. But it’s hazardous territory for most companies. When a nonprofit uses the guilt appeal, it’s probably for a good cause; morally and ethically, the side effect of making people feel bad is worth it. But when an advertisement tries to guilt consumers into buying something that ultimately exists to enrich shareholders, a variety of…



Angela Lashbrook

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.