Project Details

Duolingo's recognisable green bird logo


The ‘translation by stealth’ free language-learning site

Project URL:
Project Twitter: @duolingo

  • Community Engagement
  • Education
  • Audiovisual
  • Data
  • Mobile

Duolingo is a wildly successful language learning platform that cleverly matches the huge demand for good translation services with the abundant supply of students keen to learn a language for free.

Founder Luis von Ahn set up the site to level the playing field between those who can afford to shell out for good schools or costly language tuition software like Rosetta Stone, and those who desperately want to learn a language to improve their socioeconomic prospects but lack the resources to fund that learning.

So he put out a whole portfolio of top-notch online language courses – for free. How? By getting translation clients to fund the entire platform.

Like many language courses, Duolingo allows students to practice their skills through translation. The difference with Duolingo is that these translations are for real clients, paying real money for quickly delivered, quality translations. Duolingo’s students have the option to translate the texts, vote for the accuracy of the translations, and clients, such as CNN and Buzzfeed, cough up a fee. (The translation industry is lucrative: worth £15 billion a year.)
The site, which only launched in 2012, already has 50 million users, its free app had 1 million downloads in its first month and was selected by Apple as their iPhone App of the Year in 2013. It offers 39 courses including, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, French, German and Italian for English speakers, and English for Russian, Polish, Japanese and Hindi speakers.

The courses are data-driven and gameified: lessons last just four to seven minutes and consist of just 14-20 questions or sentences; skill points are awarded and deducted for accuracy and the system recognises and learns from the patterns in each student’s difficulties or mistakes.

They also get results: one study has shown that Duolingo students achieve the equivalent level of reading and writing fluency of 130 hours of traditional US college language tuition and 60 hours of Rosetta Stone in just 34 hours.

Von Ahn, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who invented Captchas and Recaptchas, funded the site with a MacArthur fellowship. His next step is the launch of a wiki-style ‘language incubator’ for the community to develop courses of their own, and plans to take on the $250 a throw English as a second language certification sector – with a Duolingo test you can sit on your smartphone for $20. 

Image ' (appen) är min nya lilla hobby' courtesy of Emanuel Hallklint

Last updated: 27th of May, 2014

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