Listen for the missing word


We designed a new listening exercise that prepares beginners for tackling harder exercises.


  • Increase in learners passing harder  listening exercises
  • Convinced team to purchase team license to Protopie :')


Duolingo's listening activities take off the training wheels a little too soon...

Duolingo’s current listening exercises ramp up the difficulty too quickly without properly training people. Because of the steep incline in difficulty,  people fail listening exercises more frequently and take out their frustration by skipping listening exercises altogether.

Ultimately, these issues lead to a drop in time spent learning on Duolingo (which is no bueno).

How might we ensure learners are properly prepared for harder listening activities?

A peak at the science working behind the scenes

Looks simple, right? On the surface it is, but underneath there's a lot to unpack. We built this experience around two key learning principles: sound discrimination and sentence segmentation. Turns out, both are necessary in building up folks' listening abilities early on and setting them up for future success.

Sound Discrimination is the ability to recognizing different sounds (think telling apart your "j" sound from your "a" sound. On the other hand, Sentence Segmentation is the ability to break up sentences into its meaningful parts (nouns, verbs, etc). The final design reflects these two skills, and utilizes them to create an engaging activity where learners have to listen and select the right word that completes the sentence.

A breakdown of the experience

For this exercise, I worked on designing experience. While designing the main goals I had in the back of my head were speed and good friction. Duolingo exercises should be snappy, but for this I knew we needed to introduce a bit of fraction to ensure learners were utilizing both sentence segmentation and sound discrimination. The good bit of friction here is intentionally using waveforms, which causes learners to have to rely on their ears to get this correct.

To get the interaction  perf, I created interactive prototypes in Protopie that the team and I could then test with learners to refine the experience. Having this step in our design process enhanced our ability to apply qualitative insights into our final solution.

Looking back at it

Many thanks to to thanks to my team and all the learners that helped test this thing! Tbh my brain is still doing backflips thinking about all of the science that goes into processing language.  This project taught me the value of prototyping an experience not just once, but several times.

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