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Duolingo: The Vital Role of Animated Characters in Language Learning

Longtime PBS Kids and Cartoon Network executive Linda Simensky brings her expertise in developing character-driven storytelling to the award-winning app that offers courses in more than 40 languages to more than 500 million registered users.

It was something Linda Simensky would hear about often during her time working for both Cartoon Network and PBS: the networks’ shows, their stories and characters, helped viewers learn English. 

“The belief that you can use storytelling to teach something is a concept I deeply believe in,” says Simensky. “One of the hardest things for people who are learning a language is sticking with it. So, when you have animation, and when you have character-driven stories, people are curious about those characters. It makes it more fun. And when people are having fun, and when they're enjoying the characters, they will keep coming back. In that way, the mission of Duolingo and PBS are pretty similar.”

Having previously served as director of animation at Nickelodeon, SVP of original animation at Cartoon Network, and head of content and VP of PBS KIDS programming, Simensky is now working as head of animation and scripted content at Duolingo. 

On its main, award-winning app, Duolingo offers more than 100 total courses in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and listening skills across more than 40 languages, from Spanish, French and German to Japanese, Navajo, and Yiddish. The app boasts more than 500 million registered users. Duolingo also offers the Duolingo English Test certification program and a literacy app for children, Duolingo ABC. 

In the last couple years Duolingo has also introduced 10 new, recurring characters in addition to their original Duo the owl. There’s the ambitious and sassy Bea, sports fanatic and single dad Eddy, his cheeky son Junior, the moody and music-loving introvert Lily, her bubbly best friend Zari, the excessively positive Vikram, Lilly and Zari’s art teacher and coffee connoisseur Oscar, the mysterious Lucy and her laid-back granddaughter Lin, as well as a large, grumpy bear named Falstaff. Bea, Lin, and Oscar also represent the LGBTQ+ community in their diverse pack of acquaintances and friends.

“After hearing about how so many people learned English watching Cartoon Network and PBS shows, to work somewhere where they want to make content to specifically teach language, and be part of that from the start, was inspiration for me to change jobs,” says Simensky. “I am one of the people working on the story side of things and one of the things I wanted to do was help fully develop the characters and make sure that, in addition to having personalities, they also had goals, dreams, and things that they wanted to do, and that they also had roadblocks keeping them from doing these things and challenged them in ways that made them more interesting characters.”

Simensky recently spoke at Duocon – the world’s largest free global event at the intersection of language, learning, and technology – about Duolingo’s 10 rising star characters and the app’s process of enhance learning among both children and adults. 

“The team at Duolingo had started writing stories for the app, but it became clear that, in order to really make the stories work, they needed recurring characters,” Simensky explains. “And so, they worked on developing characters and character designs that they thought would be the most interesting and would work internationally for different cultures and different stories.”

She adds, “We’re not at the point where we're able to use different characters for different lessons. But maybe that's something that we'll get to someday. But, for now, we made sure that this group of characters was very diverse and worked in a lot of different situations.”

Funnily enough, it was a Duocon 2020 presentation by character designer and Duolingo’s head of art, Greg Hartman, which first captured Simensky’s interest in working for the company. In the video, Hartman discussed how he had developed these characters that were quickly turning into the icons and mascots of Duolingo.

“I was enchanted because it was all little five-second or less bits of animation, but there was a lot in there,” says Simensky, whose teenage daughter also adores the characters and considers herself to be “a total Lily.”

“What I hear a lot is how much people like Lily,” notes Simensky. “We actually recently learned that Lily is huge in China, which tells me that we have a character who's speaking to a lot of people in a lot of different places. That's how you know you're really going in the right direction. These characters show up in the audio lessons, they are in the lesson sentences, and they're in the little celebration animations that come at the end of challenges. I was even talking to someone from the Duolingo English Test about how they want to use these characters in different ways for testing people's fluency in English.”

But the success of Duolingo’s characters hasn’t been without hurdles and animating characters for an app has proven to be just as challenging, if not more so, than developing characters for a TV series. 

“You have, roughly, between 200-300 words to tell a story, to work in a learning objective, to be funny, and to have character moments,” says Simensky. “A team of people – some from design, some from content, some from the learning and curriculum side of things – and I all work together to develop these characters and figure out what kind of stories they should tell, what their personalities should be, which characters they could pair up with, and they put together a Writers Bible, exactly like you would do for television.”

She continues, “So, yes, that is challenging, but it's an amazing and exciting challenge, because the characters are fun and we’re still learning new things about them.”

Duolingo’s stories don’t just focus on person-to-person interaction, but also dive into the innermost thoughts of their characters. 

“That was something they were just starting to do when I arrived at Duolingo,” says Simensky. “The day I got there, they were just starting to figure out how to have not just funny stories with the characters, but how to have funny informational texts pieces that came from their journals, reviews, newspaper articles or things like that. So, we were trying to make sure that we could cover all different kinds of documents and all different kinds of reading or language situations that would expand the way people were learning.”

The Duolingo team has big plans for their characters in the future, hoping to use animation and storytelling on a larger scale to make language learning an even more engaging experience. 

“The goal is to keep people enjoying the experience of language learning, not just learning the language, and we are figuring out how to use animation to do more,” says Simensky. “One of the things that Duocon was able to do was have Lily and Zari be the hosts. That's the longest amount of animation that the two of them have appeared in and it was a really positive experience. It tells us that these characters will work for longer form animation. We're working on some short-form material that will eventually premiere on the app for English and Spanish at the end of the year. But more to come on that. I think it's safe to say that there will be more animation with these characters.”

She’s been at the company for less than a year, but Simensky says it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of her career working on these 10 characters. 

“Duolingo is making education free for people all over the world, which was exciting to me because I’d been focusing exclusively on the American TV watching public of kids, and now I’m talking to people of all ages who are learning languages in all these different countries,” she says. “There’s just so many people using the app, so it's exciting to have that much impact.”

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at