March 18, 2020: The University sent out an email to all students, informing us that due to the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic, classes would be online for at least two weeks, and we’d get a couple extra days added to our spring break to give professors some time to plan their remote classes. I continued working on the capstone project with my classmates, using DuoLingo’s quick Japanese lessons to break up the monotony of reading legal texts. As I don’t have a background in epidemiology or medicine, I assumed that everything would go back to “normal” after a few weeks, and we’d finish off the school year in person.
We all know how that worked out.
In my over two-year journey with DuoLingo and recovering my language skills, I’ve often reflected on my relationship with Japanese. I started in high school, walking to Hope College a mile away to attend classes most weekdays over lunch. Though I took a break my senior year, I tested into level two and restarted my language studies when entering Kalamazoo College, and ultimately spent my junior year at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Following my study abroad year in Japan, I returned to the U.S. in August 2012. I felt fairly comfortable in the language, if not fluent, and was grateful for having fulfilled a lifelong dream of studying in Tokyo. But my senior year brought various challenges that came together to push me away from continuing my language studies. I dropped the Japanese minor without plans to ever return to Japan or use what I had learned. Instead, I focused on getting a federal job to fulfill my service requirement and starting my life over, ultimately moving to Minnesota to take the first job I was offered.
The years passed. I began my master’s degree, and in 2019, I left my federal finance job, jetting off to a dream internship at The Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Within the first week of working on issues of child soldiers and the conventional weapons trade, I met two other interns from Japan also working on foreign policy and military affairs. We were all excited to find others who could appreciate the nostalgia for world-class public transportation, daily life in Tokyo, and the foods we missed from weekly summer festivals. Talking with them reminded me of all the work I had put into learning Japanese, and how I had loved both the routine of my life and new experiences in that year. I was finally excited again by the prospect of re-engaging with Japan and its people.
In preparation for a possible Japanese Language Club suggested by another Stimson Center intern, I downloaded the DuoLingo app – and immediately failed most of the placement tests. Clearly, there were a lot of cobwebs to clean off in that neglected corner of my brain.
Although we never did organize a club that summer, the consistency of reviewing the language and reassurance that what I had learned was still there was comforting. As I returned to Minnesota and took on a full graduate course load, I always had the persistent green owl to remind me “Take a break, let’s practice Japanese!” Even when my brain felt like mush trying to make sense of econometrics or law, those few minutes helped to ground me and shift my perspective. The daily practice reminded me of the fun that can be had in learning not only a different language but a different way of looking at the world.
With the onset of COVID-19 and being stuck at home, I started completing more than the typical two to three lessons per day of Japanese. Putting all of my focus on the once-familiar sentence structure and pictorial writing system gave me a sense of calm in the increasingly turbulent public health and political environment. Working on basic science vocabulary gave my brain enough of a nudge to distance the existential dread I felt as an individual in a world that was (and continues to) seemingly falling apart.
As I moved on to the advanced lessons, the practice sentences became more creative, often making me wonder who had the power and opportunity to code these lessons.
“We got divorced because my cat was too cute.”
“I haven’t had any coffee yet, so my head isn’t working.”
“It is quite warm in hell.”
I began sharing screenshots of these lessons on Instagram – partially to keep a record, partially to share my amusement. And although we weren’t able to meet in person, many of my friends reached out to tell me they enjoyed seeing these sentences I had to practice within the app and the commentary I added. Former classmates from Japan enthusiastically replied to laugh and further encourage my review. It motivated me to keep going, if only to share the strangest and often most ridiculous phrases that came up and collectively wonder when I would ever use them.
As the dean droned on with some generic speech during our virtual graduation, I completed the health chapter on my couch with my housemate’s cat nearby. Instead of doom-scrolling on Twitter for updates on the George Floyd protests, I focused on learning various Japanese terms for the Olympics. In the neverending job search, I continue turning to DuoLingo when I get stuck on a cover letter or simply need a break from sifting through postings. For those few minutes, I am back in Tokyo eating konbini lunch on campus with friends, out shopping in Shibuya or exploring the city with my host sister, even out in the country of Tochigi Prefecture walking my internship host family’s dog.
As COVID-19 and the resultant restrictions drag on, I have completed at least two lessons every day, with over a two-year streak going strong. I am even attempting to learn Swedish with no prior knowledge after finding an ideal Ph.D. program in Lund. Though I don’t foresee using these languages as a primary responsibility in future jobs, I am not pursuing these languages solely to build up my resume. It is the small breaks I look forward to and the joy of expanding my vocabulary for greater expression and keeping my brain active and learning. The small points of connection via social media, especially hearing from those I no longer see regularly, gives me extra motivation to share the most head-scratching phrases. Arigatou, Duolingo.
Sarah Allis is the Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Development and a Research Editor at The Overseas Dispatch. Hailing from the Midwest, she participated in the Boren Scholarship program and holds a Masters of Human Rights from the University of Minnesota. Her previous work can be found in China Focus, The Society Pages, and Human Rights First where she focuses on international human rights policy and violence prevention.