It’s no secret that learning another language takes commitment, but what exactly drives that dedication? Is it how badly you want to learn the language? Is it about how attached you are to your Duolingo streak? Is it about a pressing need to communicate with a coworker or pen pal? Trick question, it’s a little bit of everything! Language learning is primarily driven by two basic elements: exposure and need. Whether it’s a toddler learning their first language or an adult working on a second or third, the human brain is designed to notice, sort, store, and use the building blocks of language. It just needs lots (and lots) of exposure to the language and a motivating reason for wanting to understand and use it!

How can you harness exposure and need to study smarter? We’re glad you asked!

Duolingo owl in front of a rainbow

Exposure and need: how do they work?

First, let’s quickly define exposure and need, and how both work in language learning:

  • Exposure: all the ways in which you can encounter the language, ranging from overhearing a conversation, to listening to music, to reading the news, to doing your Duolingo lesson!
  • Need: the reason you have for using the language, like wanting to talk with a friend or family member in their own language, needing to pass a test, or wanting to keep your position in the Diamond League!

Interestingly, exposure and need in language learning are most powerful when they occur together. Think about it: hearing or seeing another language (exposure) without needing to use it does not move the language-learning needle very far. Picture a group of people from one country living together in another, like students studying abroad. If they stay within their bubble, they probably won’t need to learn much of their hosts’ language despite being surrounded by it. On the other hand, it’s also possible to need another language but not have enough exposure, like a spouse who doesn’t have a shared language with their in-laws. During visits, they have a high need for the language, but their exposure is too limited to make real progress.

How Duolingo leverages exposure and need

Good news: it’s not difficult to harness these factors to help you learn! In fact, Duolingo offers lots of ways to put the exposure-need “duo” to work for you. Every exercise, every lesson, every story adds to the language that you are hearing and seeing, and all of that exposure adds up! When you come back day after day, you fuel the language-learning parts of your brain with more and more examples. Duolingo makes sure that language exposure is carefully crafted to build on itself and strategically recombine the words and phrases in fun and memorable ways to power efficient learning.

At the same time, on top of your personal reasons to learn another language, Duolingo encourages you to come back by creating a motivational need to keep practicing through daily quests, XP, streaks, leaderboards, and all of the fun, relatable content. These are designed to complement your own real-world motivations, because a little extra encouragement goes a long way in helping you develop positive study habits! Even on your busiest day, we’re here to kindly nudge you towards practicing to keep up that exposure.

Duolingo owl holding a bell

Control your learning experience

Are you currently thinking about how you can increase exposure and need in order to learn even more efficiently? Great! Because you can influence both factors on your long-term learning journey.

You can increase your exposure by watching a TV series in the language, getting hooked on Duolingo Podcasts, or attending Duolingo’s online events with a host and a group of other motivated learners. It doesn’t matter if some of the language is too difficult for your level—exposure works even if you don’t understand everything! And the more you surround yourself with the language, comprehensible or not, the more it becomes familiar and your mind adds new pieces, bit by bit, to its storage of words and phrases.

As you find new sources of language exposure that you enjoy, your desire to understand and express yourself will naturally increase–you’ll begin to need to watch the next episode or listen to the next podcast or follow up with your new friends at the next online event. With time, you’ll notice how much easier the language is becoming and how much more you can do with it!

Of course, there is one enemy of the exposure-need duo: anxiety. Stressing over potential misunderstandings can cause you to pull back from valuable exposure opportunities and reduce your need to use the language, which works against your learning goals. Instead, lean into the playfulness of language learning and don’t worry about having full control of the language! Having fun will boost your motivation, which will lead to more need and exposure in an upward spiral toward your learning goals.

Try it for yourself!

Language learning depends on a steady stream of opportunities to see, hear, and use the language for reasons that are important to you. Fortunately, Duolingo’s got you covered with lots of carefully curated content and ways to stay motivated, so don’t hold back! Find learning opportunities wherever you can, and see where the increased exposure and need can take you.