I didn’t break Duolingo? If not, it wasn’t for lack of trying…

I was afraid for a moment I had worn the app out. I had been pounding away at my lessons, day after day, for weeks, doing all I could to learn Dutch.

Then suddenly one day — early April, I think — the icon for the app went from this:

To this:

Screenshot of my iPad screen on April 6.

Had I broken it? It seemed to be the most obvious answer, given my relentless activity. But it turns out just to be something Duolingo does to attract attention from time to time. And it appears to work.

The icon soon returned to normal, and I continued my efforts, sometimes doing as many as 20 lessons a day.

Why? Because one of my granddaughters is doing a summer ballet intensive in Amsterdam. Her mother will be there with her for the start of the program, but then my wife and I will be there for her for the rest of it, and accompany her back to the States. That’s where we’ll be based in the latter half of our upcoming trip.

But we’re doing more than that. As a celebration of our upcoming 50th anniversary, we’re flying first to London, and we’ll stay there a couple of days. We haven’t been to town in some time (since the beginning of 2011), and one must go occasionally.

Then, we’ll have a couple of days in Canterbury, to see what the Anglicans have done with the place since Becket’s day. Then on to Dover, and then we’ll look over our shoulders at the white cliffs while we cross to Calais. That’s what the Germans expected the Allies to do in 1944, but we faked them out and went to Normandy. I’d like to go there and visit the beaches, but it will be in the wrong direction. After Calais, we’ll go to Dunkirk, Lille, Ghent and on to Amsterdam.

We’ll mostly stay there until we fly back, but will take the odd day trip to places like Bruges and Nijmegen. While in Nijmegen, I hope to catch an Uber or something into Germany, just so I can say I’ve been there, too.

You see, I’ve never been to Europe before. Ever. There’s been no occasion to do so in my 70 years. I’ve done South America, the Caribbean, Asia, Hawaii. And as y’all know, I’ve been to England and Ireland. But never crossed the channel to the continent.

My wife’s been. She and her friend Mary backpacked across the continent for a month or so just before she met me in August 1973. They had a great time. But she hasn’t been since then, and she is taking preparations for this invasion very seriously. I mentioned 1944. Well, my wife is very organized — there has to be somebody like that in every organization, and she is definitely the one in this outfit. Ike would have approved of the way she has sought to effectively deploy our finite resources upon each objective at the right time, with maximum effectiveness.

And while I have been able to make strong contributions to the planning (contributions that consist of saying, “I wanna see this! I wanna see that!”), most of my effort has gone into learning Dutch — as much as I can, anyway, in these short months of preparation. Yeah, I know most people in Nederland speak English. But I figure I’m bound to run into someone, somewhere — perhaps out in the country — who does not, and I want to be ready. My wife will handle the French — she’s been there and she studied it before that, and she’s brushing up. I’m learning Dutch, from scratch.

Fortunately, Engels is moeilijk, maar Nederlands is gemakkelijk. Or so Duolingo keeps telling me. But it’s a bit of a slog nonetheless. Becoming fluent in Spanish was as easy as falling off a log when I was 9 years old. I think I read once that that’s pretty much the end of the period of life when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first one. My brother was only 3, and I’m not sure he noticed there was a difference between the two tongues.

My Spanish (most of which I’ve forgotten, anyway, to my sorrow) is of no help here. Of course, English is a help with this one. I certainly know right away what is meant by such Dutch words as “park,” “fruit,” “week,” “weekend,” and such — although they’re pronounced quite differently. The tiny bits of German I remember from high school are sort of a mixed bag. Sure, much of the language obviously comes from common roots, but that frequently tricks me into using the German version instead, and getting the word wrong.

The hardest is the article “een” — meaning “a” or “an” — and for many weeks I had trouble stopping myself from saying “ein” instead. Also, when an S comes before a T or a P, I want to pronounce it “SH,” which I think is the way it’s done in German — at least, I got it from somewhere (we have a one or two German speakers here; maybe y’all can tell me whether I remember that right), and I think it was German. But if the readers on Duolingo have it right, that’s not the way it’s done in Dutch.

Of course, Dutch people are as likely to speak German as English, and are likely to understand. But I want to get it right.

And I’ve made a good bit of progress. One sign of that is that recently, I’ve cut back on using the button that slows down what is being said to me, as I’ve gotten impatient, and often get the faster sentence the first time. To me, that means more than having a tremendous vocabulary. It means I’m starting to grok the language (or at least, the simple bits I’ve been taught) holistically. And to me, being an intuitive sort, that is pleasing.

I don’t expect to carry on any deep conversations. But maybe I can order food (something that is a huge minefield for me with my allergies), handle simple transactions, and the like.

Besides, it’s fun to learn something new. Anyway, I’ll keep tackling the lessons for the next few days, and hope for the best. And enjoy the cooler weather. Today, the high in Amsterdam is 68 and the low is 56. In London, it won’t get above 62. I’m looking forward to that.

If it gets hot, I’ll just sit down and order een glas bier. And of course, if I forget and say, ein Glas Bier, they’ll probably bring it to me anyway.

Which reminds me. I won’t be interested in Dutch cheese or Dutch chocolate. They’re poison to me. But I do want to sample the beers, and I don’t know squat about them, beyond Heineken and Amstel. And I don’t want to order those, because then they might think I’m a tourist or something.

So if you have any advice on that front, now would be the time to share…

3 thoughts on “I didn’t break Duolingo? If not, it wasn’t for lack of trying…

  1. Bob Amundson

    I wanted to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude for introducing me to Duolingo .It’s been an invaluable tool in helping Ana Liza strengthen her English skills, which means a lot to both of us. I understand Tagalog but speak it horribly. There are no clear past and future tense, so there is much English spoken in the Philippines

    Your thoughtful recommendation has made a real difference in our lives, and I wanted to extend my heartfelt thanks for that. I’ve always admired your insight and experience, both in your career and in life. It’s inspiring to see someone who travels with such zest and continues to explore the world with curiosity.

    Safe travels. Best to your family! See Ya!

    Wishing you safe and enjoyable travels ahead, Brad. May each new adventure bring you joy and fulfillment, just as you’ve wished me well in my endeavors. Take care and keep in touch!

    Warm regards,


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Glad you’re enjoying Duolingo as well.

      For my part, I can’t even say “Tagalog.” When I’ve tried to say it in the past, I’m always told I put the emphasis on the wrong syllable…


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