So I recently started using a free online language program: Duolingo. Supposedly, it will help you learn a language in about three months. It's like Rosetta Stone, for people who don't want to drop big bucks.

Before today, I was relatively happy with it. There are some problems with the system, some odd translations and frustrating rules, but all in all, it's not a bad way to learn a language, and the fact that it's free makes it wonderfully accessible.

But wait ... there's more. 
It seems to be that the Duolingo community is not a welcoming one. As a social network, Duolingo seems just as bad as any other, specifically in the way moderators (if there are any moderators) allow sexist misogynists to run wild in the comments section. Duolingo's community appears to be populated by the sort of person many of us have come to expect when exploring the murky depths of the internet: The Troll.

This afternoon, I was working on the simple "adjectives" section of my French program when I noticed something interesting in relation to adjectives such as "fat," "round," and "large." They were only used in relation to women. For example, I was asked to translate "The woman is big" and "The woman is large" and "The girl is round." Never was the man any of these things. The man was "nice," "tall" and "handsome." I even had to type "Je suis une baliene" at one point. Want to know what that means? It means "I am a whale." 

If you read my work, you know that I'm trying to recover from an Eating Disorder. So maybe I'm more sensitive to this garbage than other people, but nonetheless, sensitive or not, it sure doesn't help.

What did I do? I decided to complain in the comments/forum. I regret it.

Here the first comment I received in response, from a fellow language-learner who calls himself "Zeimer." 
If that screen grab is too small, just click it and it should blow up. But also, let me help. His comment was: "If you don't like it you can always stop using duolingo. And if you'll [sic] continue to use it, please shut up. Normal people don't like feminists shitting about sexism, sexist insults etc." 

Here's a link to Zeimer's profile. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell me anything about him besides the fact that he's working on various language programs and doing reasonably well. Luckily, his comment tells me all I need to know about both the Duolingo community and the man himself. He's an awful person and Duolingo really doesn't care about moderating bigotry in their community. Pillars of humanity like Zeimer are allowed run wild with their offensive, ignorant nonsense.

So will Duolingo help you learn a language? Probably. But being part of the Duolingo community might not be worth it. I'd pay not to have to rub virtual shoulders with folks like Zeimer, that's for sure.
UPDATE: I have not let Mr. Troll Zeimer's comments stand and have been replying with my own snark at every opportunity. The first thing he told me to do was "please shut up" because he didn't like "feminist shitting," so in response, I haven't felt charitable and I haven't been nice. I've been super sarcastic and it's been great. I began with telling him that he could whine all he wanted, but that he wasn't going to shut me up. Here are some of his hilarious rebuttals. Remember, just click the screen grabs to blow them up.
This next one is one of my favourites. He went back to being mad about the fact that I used the fact that he'd told me to shut up as evidence of the fact that ... he'd told me to shut up. He's really riled about this.
He's really having trouble with the fact that he told me to shut up and I called him on it, so he's holding on to that as if it's the actual issue. It's adorable.
SIGH. I got tired of listening to this dude, and even of antagonizing him. At first, I felt like really pushing him with endless sarcasm, but then I started to feel a tiny bit sorry for him. I left the conversation with this final comment:


09/22/2013 16:59

Well Jenn, it's bad enough you HAVE thoughts and opinions, but then you got all uppity and started voicing them. This kind soul was simply pointing out your feminist hysteria... We should feel grateful that they even let us learn second languages, and not worry so much about our silly "opinions".

09/23/2013 07:19

Hi Jenn- I'm the Community Manager at Duolingo. I just wanted to say that we do take this type of feedback about our sentences very seriously. We have removed the one you mentioned in your post and are reviewing others. We also do not tolerate certain behavior in the forum. Here are our Community Guidelines: (which we strongly believe in). We have community moderators who are particularly savvy at a specific language, and we have Duo team members who contribute and monitor the discussions. We hope you stay as a language learner on Duolingo. As a team member and language learner myself I know that this is not the norm.

A little about our approach to sentences: Throughout Duolingo, you'll find sentences like "The bear drinks beer. / El oso bebe cerveza." These are created based on what you have already learned in the tree, so sometimes we're limited in what we can write. These sentences also add some fun to the normal predictable language learning sentences you might see in other programs. That all said, we are very sensitive to issues of gender and as a team do not intentionally include sentences that are derogatory towards any group of people. We have integrated this thinking into the product as well. For example, if you are a Spanish learner and get, "El ama a sus padres" we accept both "He loves his parents." and "He loves his fathers." Sentences that might appear derogatory should always be reported to our team. Hit the support button on the site or email us at, and let us know. We will take appropriate action (which is to delete the sentence). If you see anyone abusing the forum you can notify us directly at or hit the support button. We want this to be a community of acceptance and language discussion. We've removed the sentence you brought up and taken a close look into why this thread spiraled out of control and what can be improved.

09/23/2013 14:38

Hi Kristine,

Thanks for your comment and your work to delete the thread and the offensive posts. In my opinion, the thread spiralled out of control in part because misogynistic ideas are so deeply entrenched in our society, they are often invisible, both to the people who voice them and even to the victims. Comments in my thread, even beyond those quoted above, were deeply and insidiously misogynistic, full of ignorance and insults designed to attack me and women in general, often in sneaky and deliberately obtuse ways. As a result, only some problematic comments were deleted or addressed while others slipped through.

My post attracted attention because I used two words that certain people tend to overreact to, specifically "fat-phobic" and "misogynistic." Objection to those words, and not to the substance of my comment, was made very clear by the male commenters on the thread via use of sarcastic quotation marks, jokes at my expense, as well as direct insults. I agued vehemently with these posters for some time, because I had the energy to do so, and because I know that when bullying comments are allowed to remain, they can be hurtful to other readers, many of whom do not feel able to respond to bullies, and who are left with the bad taste of unchallenged misogyny in their mouths. Obnoxious comments left to stand send a message to users: don't argue, don't speak, and watch out if you do, because we'll attack you and we'll win. My responses exposed the truth about the commenters who replied -- the wrong-thinking awfulness of their thoughts. My refusal to give up and to shut up, which is what some of your members wanted and asked for (directly, as above, and indirectly, by refusing to leave the conversation alone) enraged them. Again, it is misogyny -- inherent in the expectation that women should shut up when they're told to shut up -- that made the thread spiral in the way that it did. I refused to comply and made a major effort to defend myself and to keep jerks from getting the last word, and some of the commenters couldn't handle it. That result was somewhat unfortunate, but I am proud to have faced those people and to have called attention to their disgusting qualities.

For the record, it is not always the comments that are obviously problematic (such as those in the post above) that are damaging and inappropriate. For example, after my initial note was posted, one of the comments in response was something like 'This is just political correctness gone too far.' This comment is not only off-topic and useless to the discussion, it is also designed to do a very specific thing -- to silence someone and to diminish their concern. It is a comment spoken by someone who imagines himself the arbiter of what is and is not valid. When moderators leave comments like this up, they validate them, and allow certain people to take attention away from the initial post. The power to silence conversations should lie with moderators, not with loudmouth members of the community.

Though it is obvious from this experience that the Duolingo community is populated by many misogynistic individuals, that is true of the world in general and is not a specific failing of your community. And frankly, there is a simple way to avoid issues like this in future without even facing the gender/sexism problem: Comments should be moderated and members should be asked to stay on topic -- to discuss issues of language and the concerns of the original poster, not to decide if the concern is valid. That should be Duolingo's job, not the job of a random idiot with an email address. Allowing members to comment on the validity of a topic and on the right of certain members to speak at all, is simply not productive.

03/05/2014 05:20

Isn't it funny how Kristine and co are always at pains to claim they take it seriously and will fix it but it never gets fixed. The problem is not just on the boards but in the lessons and in the structure. Have you noticed yet that all the new icons on the trees that show a human are plainly male, with their Village People mustaches, but with one sole exception - the trees that have a section for Passive Verbs have an image for a woman talking for those. That's no accident, is it. And the sly sexual references in the lessons all relate to women too, just like the unflattering size verbs.

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