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Duolingo Walks the Talk: Making Languages Accessible to the World

October 21, 2016


By Paula Klein

One of the best paths to employment for millions of people around the world is by learning English. Until recently, however, that goal was out of reach for many.

To make language learning more attainable to all, Luis von Ahn launched Duolingo, a free program for computer or mobile users. Acceptance has soared, and 150 million people — about a third of them active users — have downloaded the app since 2012, mainly to learn English. From CEOs to school classes in under-developed countries, students have access to 23 foreign language courses based on self-paced game technology.

Von Ahn, a native of Guatemala, understood the need to learn English in a simple, affordable manner, he said recently at an IDE seminar entitled, “Duolingo: Optimizing Education for Hundreds of Millions of Students.” Access to education is unequal” around the world, he said, and “most language programs are very expensive.” Von Ahn brought his own expertise in computer science and mathematics to bear on finding a solution.

The CEO describes himself as someone who “builds systems that combine humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone. I call this Human Computation, but others sometimes call it crowdsourcing.” (Read more about von Ahn here).

Since 2011, he has taught Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, where he received his Ph.D. His undergraduate degree is in math is from Duke. Von Ahn has a long list of accomplishments including a MacArthur fellowship, and development of Captcha and Re-captcha (acquired by Google in 2009).

Duolingo was named Apple’s iPhone App of the Year in 2013, and Google Play’s Best of the Best of 2013 and 2014. It is also available on Android phones. The system uses machine learning algorithms and generates personalized lessons from the data points of users completing more than 7 billion exercises per month. In September, Duolingo was named one of 24 winners of the MIT IDE IIC competition (photo, above), specifically in the Skills area (Watch the video presentation here).

Because the company ramped up so quickly, it has made most of its revisions “on the fly,” according to von Ahn. It has many venture capital backers but is just about breaking even, he said. In the next phase of growth, an AI chat bot will be launched and the company is also looking at monetization strategies — the platform has been used for paid translation purposes in the past — -that will boost revenue while still keeping the basic offering free. Additionally, paid certifications are available to prove that a learner has achieved certain competency levels, he said.

Watch the full video of Luis’ IDE seminar .

Read more on Medium here.