Guatemalan Scientist Revolutionizes Industry By Teaching Languages for Free


By Angela Millan Epstein

Duolingo is the most disruptive language-learning tool out there, and one could argue, it is also a democratic tool that is making information accessible in many languages, using newly created collaborations tools the technology industry has mastered in the past few years.
First of all, it is totally intuitive and fun, second, it is presented as a game, and third, it is free. Not only you are hooked since day one, and motivated to advance in the language of your choice, but the social aspect of the game have you interacting, and following people with your same level or more advanced, for questions and help.
Up until now the language industry has been using traditional methods that make learning a “task” rather than an enthusiastic activity and a game.  And given their huge expense, these language courses are more U.S. centric because the disposable income is simply not there, in the countries where learning languages is needed most: the developing countries.
The brainchild of the young Guatemalan scientist, Luis Von Ahn, an associate professor of computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, Duolingo is both, a game where one can get points and socialize, and a teaching tool to learn Spanish, English, German or Portuguese, the options at the moment that will be followed by Chinese and other languages.
For Von Ahn, the son of a Guatemalan physician and a Jewish Professor of medicine,  his Guatemalan background was critical to find a solution to make learning a language available for all. He only needed to look around to see that his family and friends could not get a second language because of the prohibitive cost.
Currently there are about a billion people trying to learn a language, and most are not U.S. based. Duolingo’s web (and soon to arrive mobile) play, make this option real for millions whose income doesn’t allow them to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in language programs, but who, if playing for 15 minutes a day, can gain an intermediate level on the language chosen in about six months.  Duolingo has signed about 500,000 subscribers since its inception in the market in June of 2012. A quarter of the subscriber base is located in the U.S., learning both Spanish and English, while 50 percent come from Latin American countries, mainly Mexico, Spain and Argentina.
Human computing behind the magic “free” and the business model
Duolingo’s promise of “free” to the users is possible because they are helping the company translate content from its corporate clients who pay Duolingo for that work. So it is technically a trade off, or an exchange of services.
What most of those who live in English speaking countries do not know is that English is the dominant language of the Internet, and only 50 percent of its content is currently translated to other languages which makes it inaccessible for a large segment of the population. Duolingo’s revenue comes from contracts with companies, like newspapers, which need their content translated to provide such access. With this model, the company is not only teaching languages for free but also solidifying its position in the market, using one of the most interesting massive collaboration experiments in technology these days.
With a lean team of 20 people, and an $18 million investment that will allow the company to operate without revenue for five years, Duolingo is already disrupting the multibillion-dollar industry of language teaching and translation; a combined pie of more than $30 billion globally.
Duolingo’s subscribers are already working on translating parts of Wikipedia, as well as some newspapers into different languages, with a margin of error very small due to its voting systems, used to choose the best material translated. Currently, the principal client is the newspaper industry, and so far the results have been excellent: “the newspapers have come to us, not the other way around” affirms Von Ahn, for whom Duolingo is one more of his brilliant inventions.  The New York Times has been doing a pilot with Duolingo to translate its content to other languages, and the company is in conversations with other news outlets.
Duolingo funder’s creativity in the technology industry has earned him numerous honors and awards from the most prestigious scientific communities in the world, like The MacArthur Fellowship, most known in the scientific community as the “genius grant.” Von Ahn has also been awarded Discovery magazine’s 50 Best Brains in Science, and FastCompany’s 100 Most Innovative People in Business, along with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, to name but a few.
Angela Millan Epstein writes for publications in the Americas and is a former Univision Reporter, ESPN and NBC’s Canal de Noticias News Anchor. She worked in IT for IBM and ScreamingMedia, and consults for the communications, media and telecom industries.
Image (c) MacArthur Fellowship