Polygloss

Etiene Dalcol, October 12, 2019

I went to Duolingo's Conference!

DuoCon was Duolingo’s first conference, it happened on September 21st 2019. The event was free to attend, but it wasn’t heavily marketed. They made an announcement on their forums and created an EventBrite event for tickets distribution. Their target audience seemed to be very small and dedicated to people heavily involved in their community.

First dibs went to Global Ambassadors, staff, and special guests

Pre-conf party

I was none of those things and only heard about the event two days before it happened. It happened to be in London and very close to me. Oh, how lucky I felt! I immediately tried to register, but every space was sold out already. I tried messaging every social media channel and a bunch of people who were attending, but without luck. Luckily there was a pre-conference party happening at a pub nearby!! So, as the good Brazilian that I am, I made sure to show up and employ my jeitinho brasileiro: I talked to multiple folks there, really emphasized how much I’d love to attend the event, asked if anyone had given up, if I could show up at the door, and finally, just as I was really tired and about to go home, Jake, one of Duolingo’s engineers who was very kind to me and introduced me to a bunch of cool people, got me a badge to attend the conference the next day. <3 <3 <3

During the party I met Luis von Ahn, Duolingo’s CEO. I was really happy about that. First, the main thing I admire him for is being a very politically vocal and successful Latin American (he is from Guatemala). I just love that, it is important to me when people care, and it is important to see great representation of it. One of the first things he asked me was what I thought of Bolsonaro. Lovely, fun and straight-to-the-point guy. After speaking my mind he carried on the conversation and introduced me to other Brazilians in the party, it was great to speak some Portuguese too, I didn’t know that he spoke it! Second, because his technical work is incredibly relevant to me. I had read one of his articles on Games With A Purpose (games that use the mass input from users to solve hard computational problems). This was the theme of his PhD thesis and he is a pioneer in this field, which is one of the main areas of the research group I am currently participating at for my MSc. But you might also know him for being the person who invented reCAPTCHA. Two things I learned when talking to Luis: I asked why was the conference venue in London and if they were opening an office in this side of the pond, but sadly the answer was no, it was related to a marketing campaign. And the other news is Duolingo stories (my favorite feature in Duolingo) is finally being promoted to the main mobile app (it is currently only present in the web version).

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Another person I met there was David J. Peterson, who created the High Valyrian and Dothraki languages for the show Game of Thrones, so my nerd side was fan-girling to extreme levels. I loved the party, the people were great, the food was great (the mini-burgers and the arancini was chef’s kiss), there were multiple non-alcoholic drinks in addition to the alcoholic ones, I took a picture with a giant Duo and I made my own duo cupcake, but it wasn’t all rainbows. There was this one dude insisting on arguing with David J. Peterson that constructed languages are not real languages which I found hilarious and rather rude. What even is a “”“real”“” language, my bro? Would you say modern Hebrew is not real because big parts of it are constructed? He seemed also really attached to the “having native speakers” thing. As if that was even the point of a con-lang created just few years ago for a fantasy universe, as if multiple indigenous dead languages are not real because they don’t have any native speakers… And insisting on this with the one person in the precinct who was giving a talk about this very subject the next day was the icing on the cake. I would pay 5 bucks to watch that person in the middle of a crowd of Esperanto enthusiasts. What can I say? David seemed like such an incredibly patient and polite guy.

Daenerys says dracarys in front of the unsullied army
I am the antithesis of patient, and also not the expert on the topic, so I just excused myself 😂

Conference day! 🎉

It was a one-track conference with talks on multiple topics, including some business sides of Duolingo, creating new language courses, engineering aspects of building their app, emotional aspects of speaking a second language, announcement of new features, community building and many other excellent stuff. I went to most talks, only skipping a few because of the screening of a documentary they created happening in a different room (go watch it later, it’s lovely) and because sometimes I wanted to chat with the speaker of the previous talk. I will not go over all of the talks I watched. As I didn’t really make any notes and I’m writing this from memory multiple weeks after the fact, I am going slowly and am only highlighting only what really stood out to me and mixing it with my own thoughts and feelings about what I learned there.

To sum it up, I loved it. As a Software Engineer and ex-open-source maintainer, I had attended and spoken at numerous tech conferences. I had never really been to a conference in any other topic. Only once I had gone to a Live Coding conference, which is mostly about Music, but still had a huge intersection with tech. Until now, that one was my favorite conference ever, which is now replaced by DuoCon. Not only I really learned a lot in this one day, it provided me lots of different things to think about later, technical and non-technical. I am not surprised to notice that the parts of the Venn diagram that have nothing to do with technology are the most interesting to me. When I am already programming and dealing with technology full time, enough is enough, I guess.

Concerning specific contents of the conference, I started writing this up as one single blog post, then it got so obnoxiously long, that I decided to break it up. In the next post, I will talk about what was discussed in Duocon on learning language efficiently and for free and some of their new features coming up. And if you want, you can watch the recordings in Duolingo’s twitch channel.


Etiene is a Software Engineer who is passionate about languages. She recently finished her MSc. in Computer Science with a dissertation in Computer Assisted Language Learning.