Washington - Apple named Duolingo – a piece of language-learning software – its 2013 iPhone app of the year. Since then, English speakers of my acquaintance have suddenly begun guten tag-ing, buongiorno-ing, and comment ça va-ing.
I myself have been habla-ing Español for the past three weeks, with Duolingo as my guide. Verdict so far? ¡Excelente, mis amigos!
Duolingo may be our best bet for a global uptick in interlingual understanding.
The app teaches Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese to English speakers, and teaches English to speakers of those languages as well as Dutch, Russian, Hungarian and Turkish, with more on the way.
The key to Duolingo’s success lies in gamification. We clearly enjoy turning the stuff of life into bite-sized, recreational competitions. Duolingo recognises that humans are wired this way.
It also recognises that the key to learning a new tongue is repetition. So the app transforms language study into an amusing diversion, replete with points, leaderboards, and video game “lives”. At the end of each successfully completed round, we’re rewarded with a trumpet fanfare and a delicious sense of accomplishment.
This is the most productive means of procrastination I have discovered. The short lesson blocks are painless and peppy, and reaching the next level (and then the level after that) becomes addictive.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Duolingo is that it doesn’t cost a cent. It’s free to download and, according to co-founder Luis von Ahn, 34, it will be free for ever.
When Von Ahn gushes about his creation, he’s less excited by the idea of yuppie professionals brushing up on their Italian and more enthused about folks attempting to improve their socio-economic status.
“The majority of people in the world who want to learn a language are learning English because it may get them a better job,” says Von Ahn. “And learning a language usually requires money.”
Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala, but went to a school with English classes. “I was one of the wealthy few,” he says. He went to the US to attend high school and university, then went on to become a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon and eventually a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.
If it doesn’t charge users and, so far, doesn’t serve them any ads, how does Duolingo make money?
It tricks you into working as an unpaid translation service. At the end of some lessons, Duolingo will ask you if you want to practise by translating a real-world document. Which will turn out to be, say, a BuzzFeed article.
By melding together enough stabs at this task from high-level Duolingo users, the app can render a surprisingly accurate translation. Which is worth good money.
So far, Duolingo has contracts with BuzzFeed and CNN to translate stories from English into languages such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
This service is earning Duolingo hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but Von Ahn predicts he will be adding a raft of new clients soon.
The language translations market is “huge” – worth $30-billion (R333bn) a year, he says.
A project like this requires enormous numbers of participants, and Duolingo has them. According to Von Ahn, being named app of the year in last month took Duolingo from 16 million to 20 million users in a week.
He says the app draws more than 100 000 new users a day. This not only keeps the translation service humming, it helps the app learn how to teach languages better.
Von Ahn says he can find no satisfying data demonstrating the most effective method for teaching languages, so he A/B tests various methods in the app to see what works best.
“If we want to know whether to teach adjectives or plurals first, we do an A/B test set, measure which does better, and then start using the winning method for all users. Through doing that, we’ve modified our teaching methods quite a bit.”
For instance, when teaching English to Spanish speakers, Duolingo starts with personal pronouns.
But Von Ahn discovered that, because Spanish does not use the pronoun “it” in sentences like “It is snowing outside”, novice students were baffled.
“We learnt from A/B testing that a lot of people were failing right there when we introduced it, so we started teaching it later. Anything super confusing when you’re just starting makes people give up.”
The teaching style you’ll encounter in Duolingo is quick, upbeat, and forgiving. It rarely explains the grammatical logic behind a new concept.
It just throws you into the pool and, when you can’t swim, scoops you up and throws you in again – until you find to your amazement that you can suddenly float on your own.
Like Rosetta Stone, the expensive online language-learning software, Duolingo associates photos with nouns to aid your memory. Unlike your Grade 10 class, it does not make you conjugate verbs with rote recitations.
Duolingo also doesn’t drill you in “Where is the station?”-type phrases in preparation for your trip to Paris next week. It’s meant to transform you over the course of months into a well-rounded conversationalist.
According to Von Ahn, reaching the endpoint of the app means you will have achieved roughly the B2 level (“upper intermediate user”) in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
“You won’t sound native,” he says, “and when you’re talking you’ll do a lot of simplifications. You’ll probably mess up the subjunctive form.
“But you’ll get around. You’ll understand what you hear very well. You’ll be able to read books and watch movies in the language.”
Reason enough for me.
And now I gotta go – need to level up a few more times so I can watch a Pedro Almodovar marathon. ¡Hasta pronto! – Slate / The Washington Post News Service