The Duolingo language app introduces a new cast of characters designed to help users better learn new languages even in the most difficult lessons. The characters act as guides within the app, cheering you on if you get a correct answer, or reacting disappointed (or cheeky) if you get a wrong answer. The nine characters from Duolingo Project World all have unique personalities and serve as guides to help you become more familiar with a new language.
"Obviously, Duolingo is a very playful language learning app," says Greg Hartman, Duolingo's art director. “We took a lot of pointers from other games, and I think you can see how motivating characters can be. When you remove the main character, you become emotionally attached to them. You will likely play this game less. We wanted to create an emotional connection and have characters that would encourage users by giving them positive reinforcement. "
Learning a language can be a challenging journey that requires a lot of mental energy, Hartman notes. You will learn things like ordering food in Spanish, sentences that would be useful for communicating with other speakers, but perhaps not the most dazzling conversation piece. "So the question was, how do you make these everyday scenarios for fun?"
Keep the duo design
When designing the characters who live in Duolingo World, Hartman said the team wanted to keep the same design elements as the mascot and owl duo with their big eyes, simple body shape and severed feet. For most cartoon characters, the design is determined by the character's personality – triangles are dynamic, squares are continuous, and circles are fun, for example. But the characters in Duolingo don't have any real storylines, they're just there to aid the user. Hartman says they decided to let the design determine the characters' personality. This is how a girl with purple hair and lots of sharp angles became emo
Character named Lily; a plump fellow with a beard is kind-hearted Vikram; and a blocky kid character with red hair turned into an energetic junior. They went through many shapes and iterations before arriving at their final nine designs, Hartman adds.
They also decided that they needed to add voices so that the experience was authentically immersed, rather than relying on their standard male or female voices. They hired a voice actor for each character and worked with Microsoft to create custom text-to-speech fonts. "It adds personality to the app. If you don't always hear the same voice, you can train our learners' ears," said Hartman.
Duolingo will be releasing the voices of each character in the coming months.
Find universal names
The choice of names proved to be more of a challenge than Hartman expected. They needed names that sounded the same in all languages so that some early ideas were ruled out, including "Jun" for a character since it would be pronounced "Hoon" in Spanish. And they renamed a character when they realized that "Pete" can sound like the word for "fart" in French.
Hartman also says the team wanted to make sure they didn't pick names that could lead to something offensive in another language: "We checked every name in every language we teach," he says. "That was a big part of developing the characters." He adds that having a diverse workforce has proven invaluable: "I just had to go to one member of our team and say, 'Tell me where we went wrong," and people were kind enough to help us. "
The last big redesign at Duolingo happened in 2018, when the company changed Duo's look and gave it more expression (if you are not guilty of finishing your French class with a whiny green owl, I can't help you) and the rest of the redesigned App to reflect its newer look.
There are no plans to get rid of Duo, says Hartman; Duolingo is Duo's world and these other characters live in it. But, he adds, they decided not to design the new characters as other animals because it didn't feel quite right for what they were trying to achieve. "The language is so ingrained in human culture, and it seemed strange to add a bunch of characters that weren't from our world," he said.
Fan Art on Fridays
Duolingo started making the new characters available for lessons in the app earlier this year and has since added them to other features in the app as well. For example, they showed up in Duolingo Stories in July and appeared in animations during class earlier this month to cheer learners on.
Then a fun thing happened: fan-art versions of the characters started popping up on social media. So the company launched a Fan Art Friday competition to encourage people to send in their art to be featured on Duolingo's social posts.
The characters will be officially unveiled today at Duolingo's annual Duocon conference. You will be available in Duolingo courses where both languages are Spanish, French, German, English or Portuguese. They should possibly be added to other language courses in the app.
According to Hartman, Duolingo sees language learning as a way to make a sometimes difficult – but ultimately rewarding – process more enjoyable, much like exercising makes physical activity seem less strenuous. "It is sometimes difficult to get up and just walk around your yard, but when you introduce a ball and healthy competition you think less about how hard it is physically and more about the ball and the goal," he said. "Duolingo wants to introduce a" mental ball "to motivate learners."