The founders of Duolingo — Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker — were inspired to create a language program because they believed that “free education will really change the world.” For many people, existing programs like Rosetta Stone and Open English (a South African system) were too costly. (Online Rosetta Stone membership runs about $200-$300 a year.) So they made Duolingo available online for free. (Rosetta appears to be targeting Duolingo in an online ad which declares: ‘Rosetta Stone – More Than Just a Free App.”)
A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, von Ahn, 35, is considered to be one of the pioneers of crowd sourcing. He achieved a measure of fame (and a good chunk of money) for co-inventing the CAPTCHA security system — the often difficult-to-read letter and number sequence computer users are required to duplicate to prove that they’re not a bot. After selling two companies to Google, he had enough money to retire. Instead, he decided to try his luck educating people who were struggling to better their lives.
“It has a lot to do with where I grew up because I did grow up in a very poor country, in Guatemala,” he told The Guardian ,“Something amazing happens when everyone can have access to the same education.”
The thirst for language education is enormous: currently there are 1.2 billion people learning another language, but while Americans and Canadians may want to learn a new language for travel or as a hobby, non-English speakers in the developing world — some 800,000 of them — have a more compelling reason: they want to escape poverty, get a better job and make more money.
Von Ahn knew nothing about the language education business when he started Duolingo three years ago. He consulted “French for Dummies,” enticed by the promise of attaining fluency in no time flat. As he told attendees at a recent Quartz conference in New York, each book he picked up claimed to offer the best system for learning a language. He concluded that no one really knew what worked or how people really studied and learned a new language. Was it better, for example, to learn plurals before adjectives or vice versa? Von Ahn decided that there was only one way to find out: see how students responded and see what worked and what didn’t.
Since he was a computer engineer, not a teacher, he did what computer engineers do: he used algorithms to test users’ experiences on various exercises. The resulting app asks users to answer multiple-choice questions and type in phrases. Those people who do better on the tests were presented with different questions than those who didn’t do as well. But von Ahn also wanted to make learning fun. So he designed Duolingo to function like a game. He didn’t want to make it feel like “going to a gym.” Every question in the “game” has either a right or wrong answer; by amassing right answers you can collect points and reach higher levels. By analyzing the data from thousands of users, Duolingo is able to optimize the system.
The app was meant to function like an especially attentive tutor who could learn from students as well as teach them. That goal hasn’t been achieved yet. “We are nowhere near as adaptive as a human tutor who, by looking at your facial expression [sees] you are a little hesitant on something,” von Ahn told The Guardian, “They may bring [that] kind of human touch to it and we are not as good as that but I think we could be. It will take a really long time to get as good as a human tutor, to be honest.” He doesn’t see Duolingo as a standalone program, but rather as a supplement to formal lessons — a kind of “blended learning companion” for classrooms. Von Ahn is particularly proud that his program has been adopted by public school systems in Columbia, Costa Rica and his home country of Guatemala because they generally serve the poorest children. (Children of wealthier families attend private schools.)
As soon as it was launched, Duolingo proved popular — maybe too popular. People wanted more languages in addition to those that were originally offered. That was a problem because the company had only 15 employees in the beginning. That led to a decision to recruit contributors who demonstrated proficiency in various languages including Esperanto and Irish (although it’s spoken by only 94,000 people, a million people are learning it, a phenomenon that von Ahn is hard pressed to explain.) So in that respect, it’s a model of language training based on crowd sourcing. Duolingo is available in 15 languages with another 21 planned. However, it doesn’t offer Mandarin, Cantonese or Japanese because the software is designed for languages spoken in the West.
Nonetheless, with an estimated 100 million users, it’s the most popular language program in the world as well as the most downloaded app in the education category on both iTunes and Google Play.
“Poor people are using the same program that Bill Gates is using,” von Ahn boasted in an interview. That’s no longer true. Bill Gates admitted he dropped it though he didn’t say why. The dropout rate remains a problem, one that’s common to many online learning courses: according to The Guardian. Only about 15 million people are regularly using the app at any time.
For those people who stick with it, though, Duolingo offers significant rewards. A study, conducted by the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina, found that an average of 34 hours of Duolingo were equivalent to a university semester of language education as measured by results of two placement language tests in Spanish — one given at the beginning of the study and one at the end.
That’s not to say that students using the software become fluent in another language overnight. Duolingo aims to give them the working knowledge of a foreign language, not a mastery of it.
Initially, Duolingo made money by contracting with clients like CNN which needed translations of articles and documents — what von Ahn called a “twofer” since the students were learning the language as they did the translations. But the company is moving away from that model, partly because translations no longer pay very well. A translation from Spanish into French, for instance, used to bring 50 cents a word; now it can be done perfectly well in Bangladesh for a penny a word.
Now Duolingo is focusing on a language certification model that will be based on conducting standardized tests for university accreditation. The company declares that its tests are “scientifically designed to provide an accurate assessment of real-world language ability.” Tests are adapted to each individual’s ability, meaning that no two tests are alike. The website states: “This prevents inflated scores achieved through memorization of test questions, a well-known problem in language certification.”Duolingo hopes to become “the gold standard” of language proficiency. The company has also attracted about $40 million in venture capital.
“My main philosophy is that everyone should have equal access,” von Ahn says, expressing his belief that the major beneficiaries of his language program will be people throughout the world who would otherwise lack the language training they need to improve their lives. He acknowledges that people still have to afford a phone and a data plan to use his program. “But it is the closest I know how to get equal access.”