My tween daughter was bored and antsy as we waited for dinner at a local restaurant. We had just reunited after a long day, and I wanted to capitalize on our time together.

“Did you play Duolingo today? You need to keep your streak going!” I said in an effort to lighten the mood. The reminder made her eyes light up. She grabbed her phone and opened the language learning app right away. I smiled and did the same. We scootched our chairs together and each completed a lesson to meet our daily minimum requirement. Once we were done, we flashed our phones to one other as an onscreen virtual fire lit up the numbers 174 on my screen and 50 on hers, reflecting the number of consecutive days we’d each completed at least one lesson. When our food arrived a few minutes later, we were both in a better mood.

The previous September, my daughter had started her first year of middle school. She spends a lot of time out of the house now. It’s been a huge shift for our family—especially after a year of virtual school—and I’m always looking for ways to connect. One afternoon, she was telling me about her homework and mentioned that she was required to play Duolingo for a few minutes each day. The program was assigned to all the students in her Spanish class as an add-on to their lessons.

I sat next to her while she played a few games and was intrigued. For years, I’ve wanted to sign up for a language class, but I assumed most were pricey, time-consuming, or both. I took four years of Spanish in high school but haven’t used those skills since meeting the basic requirements in a college placement test. After that, there wasn’t an easy way for me to directly apply what I had learned, so it quickly fell away.

I had no idea how popular language learning apps had become over the past few years. Wanting to give it a try, I downloaded Duolingo and dusted off the cobwebs. I was surprised by how quickly the verbs and nouns came back to me. The games were simple and fun to play. Soon, using the app became routine and a more productive way to fill downtime than mindlessly scrolling through social media. It also became a fun way for my daughter and me to connect, as we reminded each other to keep our streaks going and shared lessons.

I wanted to understand more about the program and why so many people—including my daughter and me—got hooked, so I spoke with Duolingo’s senior learning scientist, Cindy Blanco.

“Duolingo leans into gamification,” Blanco says. “The program was created with enjoyment to be built in from the start. The experience is welcoming, to motivate the user.”

The games vary, so the style of learning constantly changes. One minute I’m shifting tiles around to create proper sentence structure and the next I’m matching words to their meaning during a speed round competition. I don’t feel pressured to memorize nouns, verbs, or conjugations, the way I did in high school, since the app allows me to click on words for their meaning instead of leaving me guessing. Eventually, phrases look familiar.

“We had to take language classes in school, and they weren’t always great experiences,” Blanco explains. “We want to show learners that no matter their age, education, background, or familiarity with the language you can build up proficiency. The experience is really important to us.” I love that the program is built for everyone, even someone like me who has been out of school for over a decade.

When I took Spanish classes as a teenager, I was fairly good at reading and writing, but my listening and spoken grammar were terrible. Aside from the varied games Duolingo offers, I love that I’m regularly prompted to read out loud or listen to a sentence and move tiles around to match what I’ve heard.

“It can be really scary speaking a different language,” Blanco agrees. “Adults shouldn’t feel embarrassed, but we do. We’re supposed to sound confident. But how can we when we’re learning a new language? The program allows users to build competence and confidence by repeating sentences in private and having it graded by the artificial intelligence in the software.”

If I’m in a noisy environment, or not interested in speaking or listening that day, I can opt out of that function.

Duolingo has been around for 10 years and has an interesting history. Several other apps, such as Mondly, Babbel, Memrise, and Busuu, are also popular. Rosetta Stone was one of the first to offer the flexibility of language learning at home with CDs in the 1990s, and it also has an app.

I just wish I’d known about language learning apps sooner. Years ago, when I left my career to support my family, I missed the mental stimulation my job provided. A few minutes of language emersion here and there keeps me thinking throughout the day but doesn’t make me feel pressured. Duolingo also offers local and virtual events where users can engage with one another, gain confidence speaking a new language, and enjoy host-led conversations. They create podcasts with real-life stories and English narration that are an easy way for me to continue learning when I’m in the car heading to pick up my daughter. Then we can listen together on the ride home.

While I don’t expect to become fluent anytime soon, Duolingo certainly keeps me moving in the right direction. I’m surprised by how much I’ve learned so far. I asked what happens when I finish the program, or if that is even possible. “The goal of the software is to understand enough language to get a job, whether in another country or your community. But there is no end to learning, even once the units offered are completed,” Blanco says. The company continually modifies the program and incorporates new ways to interact with the language. For example, since my daughter has school-issued software, her app has an open writing function, which is only being tested amongst a few users in the Spanish and French stories. The program makes suggestions, similar to the way Google prompts the next word when we type, so the user has an easier time crafting sentences. I haven’t seen that function on my app, but I have the speed-round game and my daughter doesn’t. She loves to grab my phone and play, especially since she’s faster than me and can match 90 Spanish words to English words in less than two minutes. I love that our programs are different. It keeps us engaged in each other’s profiles and regularly comparing progress.

In the future, I hope to take my daughter to a Spanish-speaking country and directly apply our hard work. It’s a long-term goal we can work toward in five-minute increments throughout the day. For now, we need to look into the family plan. My husband is working on his French, and my eight-year-old son is interested in joining him. Perhaps the next time we are out to dinner, my daughter and I will have more competition.