DuoLingo rank in top 3% explains how I passed pandemic time

Perhaps because the pandemic gave me fewer distractions, I stuck with DuoLingo for most of 2020, primarily studying German and Spanish this time. I practiced there more than ever before, and I earned my longest continuing streaks.

I believe I created my DuoLingo account sometime during DS1‘s first year of home schooling, which would put that half a dozen years ago or so. My history with the platform is therefore fairly long, but my use has been sporadic. I come and go with all of my language studies, often in preparation for a trip, but I also use Pimsleur tapes and other resources, and I jump around between languages including those I started in school (Spanish, German, Japanese) but also occasionally French, Russian, or any other language I’ll be encountering in my travels.

Books foreign language learningI’ve tended to view DuoLingo as a game, a dabble, or a linguistic lark. I’m already on record on this point: I am a dilettante.

According to the 2020 Year in Review report Duo sent me this December, I ended up in this year’s top 3% of users. Who would’ve thought it? Yay, me!

DuoLingo 2020 Year in Review analysis

Whether these reports are a new feature, or if I’ve simply been “inactive” by winter in the past, this is the first time I remember receiving such a summary.

2597 minutes of language learning only averages out to about 7 minutes per day, roughly 50 minutes per week, so my minor obsession with the platform over the summer wasn’t too pathological. Nor is such a commitment sufficient, really, for anything except a nifty end-of-year ranking worthy of a self-congratulatory blog post.

Am I great at German now? Na ja, I’m afraid I still require subtitles to watch Nailed It! Germany or Dark on Netflix. Fluent, I ain’t!

Then again, the power of spaced repetition for retaining knowledge is undeniable. I’m hardly fluent in any language but my first, yet I have certainly cemented additional vocabulary in German and Spanish in 2020.

DuoLingo’s tag line is something like: “Learn a language in just 15 minutes per day.”

Analog wall clock showing 12:06The reality is that few will actually commit to the process, and almost no one can achieve fluency using any single tool. Even if you do commit 15 minutes per day to DuoLingo, you’ll be unlikely to be ready to address the United Nations without a whole lot of “something else” under your belt.

Also, the CEO is the person who invented CAPTCHAs, so there’s that working against DuoLingo’s place in my heart, too. I despise those stupid things.

Screen grab from DuoLingo showing 129-day streak achievementMany of us are susceptible to game-ification, however, so I encourage langauge learners to give DuoLingo a try. Extrinsic motivation isn’t such a bad thing for a necessary—yet repetitive—task like vocabulary study. I jealously guard my months’ long streak of continuous* days’ use of the platform. No stack of flash cards has ever kept me on track so continuously; not even the fear of low grades in college courses was as compelling as hoarding an imaginary currency called Lingots.

I’m 21 topics away from completing Level One of every available topic in German, the language I study most often on the platform. I’ll earn a completely meaningless Achievement dubbed “Conqueror” when I make it to that lofty(?) goal.

I’ve only topped out at Level Five on a single topic, Basics1 before the castle icon indicating Checkpoint One. It’s interesting, actually, recognizing from perusing the DuoLingo chat boards how some of us approach a language breadth-first, whilst others prefer a deeper dive, completing each topic up to its max in turn before moving on to the next.

I suppose the choice to do otherwise feels as obvious to other learners as mine does to me!

German has five Checkpoints or collections of topics, whereas Spanish has seven. Some languages are more popular than others, and the platform seems to offer more content for the languages users demand. Rational of them, I suppose.DuoLingo screen shot showing one more Topic to complete before Checkpoint 3 Castle is reached

I’m just shy of Checkpoint Three en español.

DuoLingo is free, so it is well worth its price. Ads are a significant annoyance when using the iOS app, but I don’t see any in the web version running on my desktop though I do employ multiple ad blockers.

The number of ads shown seemed to increase with total usage on the iOS app; I might not have kept up with it if I’d seen ads after every lesson from the beginning like I do now.

It’s worth noting that the ads in the app occur only at the end of each topic lesson, so I can and do cover my screen with my hand until the close button becomes available, and unwanted screeching video noise pollution can be silenced when it does occur. Moderately annoying still ads outnumber intensely annoying video ads on DuoLingo in my experience, but the ads to which you will be subjected are no doubt dictated by some algorithm outside my ability to predict on your behalf.Calculation of 41 weeks + 3 days times minutes per day = 417,600 minutes

I appreciate DuoLingo’s year end report for an accounting of how I spent 2597 minutes of pandemic isolation. Now if only I had such complete records for the other 415,003 minutes of it. I have some doubt that the balance was spent in so edifying a manner!

* Full disclosure: I have used a “Streak Freeze” save at least twice, so my current 129 day streak is somewhat less impressive than it looks.

FYI French has nine, Russian has five, and Hebrew has seven. You’ll have to do the resources yourself for any of the other 32 languages available to English speakers that are not in my DuoLingo queue.

Roasting vegetables is the right recipe for pandemic winter

  • Hate to cook?
  • Trying to shop less frequently because of a pandemic?
  • Know you should eat more vegetables, but enjoy almost every other food more?
  • Spending more time working and/or learning from home?

If, like me, you tick all these boxes, you should start roasting root vegetables as soon as possible. Best of all, you will have an excuse to purchase a rutabaga. If there’s a vegetable that’s more fun to name, I have yet to hear of it.

Say it out loud: ROOT-uh-BEG-uh! You’re smiling now, right?

Plate of oven roasted carrot, beet, turnip, sweet potato and onionYou will need access to an oven or a toaster oven to cook veggies this way. Beyond that, all that’s required is about one hour and:

  • a sheet pan or other wide, shallow, oven-safe cookware
  • oil
  • salt or other, more sophisticated seasonings
  • vegetables
  • cutting board or plate and a sharp knife

Primal Kitchen avocado oil and Kirkland Himalayan pink saltYou can roast many other things, but the long storing properties of most root vegetables make them ideal for a COVID-19 era menu. Broccoli comes in little bunches; potatoes are sold in great big bags. Shelf life is the main reason for the discrepancy.

Root vegetables in storage boxes and bags: carrot, beet, turnipHere’s a nice resource discussing healthy root vegetables and their nutritional characteristics.

In normal times, many people rush home after work and need dinner on the table within minutes. Roasting is a long, slow process, ill-suited to that kind of lifestyle. Now that a greater* proportion of us are working from home due to the pandemic, however, this kind of “prep it, put it in the oven, then ignore it for an hour while you get back to work” recipe is a lot more accessible.

I was introduced to the concept of roasting root vegetables by a functional nutritionist to whom I was referred by my primary care physician. I suspected that my diet affected the symptoms of my autoimmune condition, but I struggled under the burden of cooking every bite of food for myself given my near total lack of enjoyment of time in the kitchen. This was the best idea the nutritionist gave me from a fairly wide array.

Before I started roasting vegetables, I didn’t buy turnips, rutabagas, or parsnips. Now, I usually keep at least a couple of each on hand because it is so easy to prepare them this way, and the results invariably taste good. Note that these are not vegetables I typically enjoy otherwise.

If you’d like a professionally produced set of step by step instructions, feel free to carry on with Epicurious instead of my low budget advice. Otherwise, here’s my 2 ¢ as the laziest possible chef.

Recipe for roasted root vegetables

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 450° F if you remember; if you don’t, allow more cooking time. This is not a fussy recipe.
  2. Wash all your vegetables, and peel if you prefer.
  3. Chop vegetables into uniform, small-ish pieces.
  4. Pour—or brush with a pastry brush or a bit of paper towel—a thin film of oil onto your baking sheet, lined with foil or a silicone mat first if you prefer.
  5. Spread vegetables in a single layer on prepared baking sheet.
  6. Drizzle with a little oil, and sprinkle on salt and/or pepper, Borsari, or other dried herbs or spices.Borsari original seasoned salt bottle
  7. Roast vegetables, lowering heat to 425° F for about 20 minutes. Check at the 20 minute mark, stirring and flipping pieces over. Continue roasting in 10-15 minute increments until you think they’re done. Look for some darkened edges, or note when the sharp odor of raw vegetables is replaced by the sweeter scent of cooked ones. If in doubt, a total cooking time of 45-60 minutes is probably about right, and most vegetables won’t hurt you if raw or under-cooked, unlike meat.

Roasted vegetables on Silpat lined half sheet panVeg roasting tips from an unseasoned cook

My most often roasted vegetables are sweet potato, carrot, beet, and parsnip, but I use turnips and rutabagas pretty often, too. I have yet to regret roasting any vegetable, but, in my experience, the watery ones seem like extra work for less deliciousness.

Unless you’re cooking for my husband or a similar philistine, always include one small onion with your other vegetables. Caramelized onion is just so tasty unless you hate onions, and maybe even then, and even a small amount lends tons of flavor to the entire rest of the tray of vegetables.

Chop up your vegetables to the size you like to eat. I make little pieces that look like breakfast hash for myself; my husband prefers heftier chunks, a bit larger than dice. I can cook both in the same oven for about the same amount of time with no ill effects, so I’d say the size is purely a matter of personal taste.

Don’t crowd the pan! I always do, and the results will be softer, more “steamed” vegetables with less of the really yummy, caramelized, crunchy bits. Use a larger pan than you think need, and you’ll get the tastiest results. If, like me, you prioritize getting that last dish into the dishwasher instead, just recognize that a smaller batch might turn out better.

Proper chefs on the internet tell me I would get crispier, more delicious vegetables if I used an unlined baking sheet. I use a Silpat non-stick silicone mat anyway. Again, I prioritize easy clean up, and the food ends up good enough for me either way.

Try roasting vegetables you don’t think you like. You may feel differently about them once roasted! I do not normally care for beets or parsnips, but I like them roasted. I like raw carrots, but hate them cooked moist say in a soup; I love them roasted. You can see where I’m going with this. Your experience could differ, but this is a wonderful way to try eating unusual produce that might not normally appear in your diet. Most of us benefit from the addition of greater variety in this category.

Offer roasted vegetables to your kids, possibly not mentioning exactly what they are until they’ve rendered a verdict on taste. Make sure the distinct varietals are different colors so you can identify favorites for future reference. Encourage your kids to eat a whole rainbow of foods. Let them select spices from your cupboard and try roasting with them, possibly by sniffing each bottle until they find one that smells tempting.

My favorite is Borsari Original Seasoned Salt. This is the only “mixed” seasoning in my spice cupboard. It is delicious on duck… and everything else I’ve tried it with. A Whole Foods employee recommended it to me c. 2003.

* 7% of Americans reported being able to work remotely prior to the pandemic; as of October 2020, one third of us are working from home all the time, and 25% report doing so some of the time. More than half of Americans have worked from home for at least part of the pandemic.

Time to wake up the kids if they’re headed back to school hours

Like millions of other families around the world, we “enjoyed” a longer-than-typical season of unstructured hours this summer due to COVID-19 and the very early spring shutdown of our kids’ in-person schools.

Analog wall clock showing 12:06After Labor Day, however, half of our household will resume scheduled, synchronous activities. One of us is even expecting to attend classes in person, though we are opting for our child to only join his small group on site while weather permits outdoor education.

Something I learned years ago from travel across time zones—yet only painful personal experience drove the point home in the parenting arena—is the value of gradually shifting the kids’ wake up times in the weeks leading up to any dramatic change of schedule. I follow a similar procedure myself to fight jet lag, and it definitely helps me to function better upon arrival in a distant locale.

sleeping child in dimIf your kids have been sleeping until noon, do everyone a favor and wake them up earlier tomorrow. Try waking them up 30 minutes or an hour earlier each day until you’re back to the usual academic term rise & shine time. Shifting one’s schedule by a little bit each day doesn’t feel great, but it does eliminate a large shock of pain from a sudden transition.

This year has been weird enough. Let’s ease this transition for our little ones as much as we can!

Working through grief: a view from 4 months after Mom’s death

Much has been written about grief, most of it by people with more experience, expertise, and, perhaps, intellectual interest in the subject than I have.

What I know can be summed up thusly: there are no shortcuts; one must carry on through it, and knowing that fact doesn’t make it any easier to go ahead. Somehow, anyway, most of us do muddle through.

I’ve been muddling for about four months since Mom died.*

As often happens, I find myself abundantly grateful for my extraordinarily blessed life, even at an awful time. Because I am a stay at home parent with a supportive husband whose own parents share our New England home, I had the freedom to spend two whole months with my dad as he grieved the loss of his wife of over 50 years.

Uncountable numbers of friends and family gave generously to support Dad and the rest of us. Mom’s energy and organizational prowess made a difference in so many lives, and people made that clear with their presence and their kind messages. The congregation of my folks’ church, Vancouver Heights UMC, freely provided resources and support far beyond what I would have imagined possible, had I ever been brave enough to imagine planning a parent’s funeral before I was forced to do so.

I can’t begin to imagine how much harder coping is for those with fewer resources. Then, too, losing my mother leaves me exquisitely aware of the universality of this crushing blow. All the resources in the world are a poor substitute for the love of the humblest mom.

Though I tried to be a help to Dad, those two months with him also served as a time apart for me to process my own grief. Oddly, returning home to normalcy hit me with a whole new series of unexpected reminders of loss. For me, at least, lots of things about Mom’s death have been difficult, but the situations I anticipated as particularly challenging have rarely counted amongst the most disruptive or disturbing. Trivial moments have dealt me my most significant blows, perhaps because I couldn’t brace myself for each impact.

Processing grief requires enormous flexibility from its sufferers.

My children, troopers that they are, both spent many weeks helping Grandpa as well. We were all there before the end, Mom’s last days in hospice care being both mercifully and, simultaneously, tragically very limited. The kids needed their own space, their own home, and time to prepare for the upcoming school year, so they headed home to Papa and his parents some weeks before my departure from my parents’ home.

Though I thought often about Really Wonderful Things throughout the summer and fall, I couldn’t find the strength to sit down and commit any of them to the page. Most of the thoughts were disordered; most of the time, my mind played second fiddle to my tumultuous emotions.

Now I know: I’m made exhausted and quite stupid by grief, and also irrationally frightened. I was afraid to approach my own cherished little blog.

Exactly what I’m afraid of is still hard to articulate as autumn decays into winter, but a caring comment from a regular reader did help prompt me to face some of this grief-induced anxiety and scrawl a few words on the page.

If you find this post because you are suffering a loss of your own, I hope my words offer some comfort.

If you’re a regular reader, I hope you haven’t missed my rambling too much. Many thanks for your patience.

*Though I did, in fact, begin this post on Labor Day, nearer the two month mark. An upload failure erased half of what I’d cried over on my cross-country flight home, and I simply couldn’t find the energy to resume until today, in late November.

It turns out that starting my car after school drop off equates in my mind with “call and check in with Mom.” 12 weeks into the school year, the instinct hasn’t left me yet, and it fades so very slowly.

Prioritize time with friends if you value your health

Do you prioritize your friendships?

Studies show—and common sense should confirm—that lives are healthier and happier when they include regular time spent in agreeable company. Getting together for coffee with a friend is as worthwhile an endeavor as hitting the gym or having your annual physical with the doctor.Espresso in demitasse cup on cafe table

“[R]esearchers have predicted that loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken”

and

“Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity”

Quotes from a 2015 Meta analysis of research on loneliness/social isolation and its effect on health by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, et. al.

Yet, somehow, our culture presses us to “make time” for work (primarily) as if time can be spun from willpower alone and also lionizes those whose sexual relationships fit an idealized mold. Subsequent emphasis is then given to the familial obligations that result when offspring commonly results from the latter.

Woman hugs childTo the exclusion of all else, the role of spouse and, maybe, parent, especially if you’re a woman is presumed to offer all the emotional support one person needs, tacitly proclaiming romantic love* a panacea for every type of companionship.

Unfortunately, that notion is tragically flawed, placing outrageous pressure on one person to be “everything” to another when that is neither probable nor healthy. It kills marriages, leaving lonely people feeling like failures when they’ve followed the common wisdom and left their friendships behind after coupling.

Human beings are social creatures. We evolved to live in communities.

I’ve got it easier than most as chronic illness forces me to confront my limitations on a regular basis. If I wasn’t skilled at aligning my actions to my values before I got sick, having my physical energies truncated again and againand again so repeatedly has brought my focus to the point.

It’s a fine, sharp point, too!

Men, in particular, may literally be dying from loneliness, though social isolation is increasing for all genders. “Social” media is simply not sufficient to nurture human health and happiness.

People seated in beneath stone arches in Barcelona restaurantThough, by all means, keep reading my blog.

Call a friend. Make a date. Visit the pub. Take time to play a game together. Put it in your calendar, and prioritize it! Your other successes will mean very little if you go early to your grave for want of meaningful companionship.

*Modern philosopher Roman Krznaric wrote a wonderful article on how our interpretation of the thing we call “love” and how ours differs from that of the ancient Greeks. I highly recommend both the short article and his full length book containing the same work as a chapter.

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