Learning German Online With Duolingo

No ads, no fees, and a fast and easy language course. It is a program called Duolingo, a company whose innovative business concept keeps it relevant, fun, and free. But the question that inspired Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn to create the service might not be what you would expect.

Woman with smartphone

In order to increase the availability of information worldwide, von Ahn had dreamed of translating the contents of the internet into every major language.  But there were two problems: a lack of money and available bilinguals. As he explains in a 2011 TED talk, he found himself asking: “How can we get 100 million people translating the web for free?”  With a pool of over a billion language learners during any given year, von Ahn hoped that “People [could] learn a new language for free while simultaneously translating the web," and Duolingo turned out to be the solution to both problems and the answer to his question. 

After its 2012 launch, Duolingo made von Ahn’s dream a reality. Students can learn German (and a number of other languages) by translating sentences from the web and completing short exercises on their computers, iOS, or Android devices. Those translations are then combined with those of other users to ensure accuracy and quality, and selling those translations is what pays for the service, keeping it completely fee- and ad-free.  The results have been surprisingly good and are quality-controlled through the combination of multiple translations. An enterprise that would have cost around 50 million dollars to fund with professional translators is being done—though often unknowingly—by language students who are getting free language training in exchange.

“People really can learn a language with it, and they learn it about as well as with the leading language-learning software,” von Ahn says in his talk, and research has proved his point.  When Duolingo’s approach was reviewed by professors at City University of New York and the University of South Carolina, they found that in 34 hours on Duolingo was able to yield reading and writing skills of a first-year college semester.  In comparison, reaching a similar profinciency level using Rosetta Stone took an average of 55-60 hours.

Because students are working with real content taken directly from the web, the material remains relevant.  Exercises and practice help students improve, and to keep things fun, the process has been gamified: like in many video games, players can “level up” by learning new skills.  During an exercise, students have three “hearts” to finish (one heart is taken away for every wrong answer in an exercise), and success is rewarded in Lingots, the program’s virtual currency.  Lingots can be used to buy extra hearts, a day off, a certificate, or courses in idioms and flirting.  To help with motivation, you can also place a five Lingot bet.  If you use Duolingo for seven days straight, you double your money.  Users of the iPhone app can also use Lingots to buy outfits for the Duolingo owl and their personal language coach.

The exercises are data-driven or “smart,” which means that they aggregate information about which mistakes a student makes and base further exercises on this information.  So if you keep making a mistake with a certain word or concept, the questions that follow will be designed to help you learn that word or concept. Students can also discuss each question in a forum connected to each question.  Another section of the website allows students to try their hand at longer translations and to rate the efforts of others.  Having tried the program myself, I can say that it is both fun, effective, and addictive for students of all levels of German.

Duolingo's ethics

For von Ahn, Duolingo is not just a successful business or an effective language tool—it is also a way to break down the class discrimination present in the model of most language train model’s today.

“The current business model for language education is ‘the student pays.’ In particular, ‘the student pays Rosetta Stone 500 dollars.’  The problem with this business model is that 95 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have 500 dollars.  So it is extremely unfair towards the poor.   This is totally biased towards the rich," explains von Ahn.  "Now see, in Duolingo because while you learn you are actually creating value. You are translating stuff which for example we could charge somebody for translations, so this is how we could monetize this   Because people are creating value while they are learning they don’t have to pay with their money They pay with their time.  But the magical thing is that they are paying with their time, but that is time that would have had to spend anyways learning the language.  I think Duolingo provides a fair business model, one that doesn’t discriminate against poor people.”


Duolingo website