Learn A Language For Free And Change The World With Duolingo

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


After my grand Pan-American journey came to an end, I moved to Montreal and was faced with two somewhat serious problems: I was completely broke and, if I wanted to find a decent job, I would have to learn French. The problem: no money, no language classes. They call this, un shitload de problèmes, in Quebec. Thankfully, through the magic of the Google, I came across Duolingo, and to put it frankly, the website has helped me realize the true potential of the internet in years to come.

Duolingo is free, user-friendly language education delivered to a screen near you. From smartphones to desktops, the program allows users of all skill levels to learn Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and English in short, intensive lessons that feel more like games than homework. Still, it works. The Wall Street Journal recently said Duolingo is “far and away the best language learning app.”

“We started Duolingo because we wanted to give equal access to the best language education method to everybody, regardless of their socio-economic status,” Duolingo co-founder Luis von Ahn told The Expeditioner. “Duolingo is free and always will be.”


The program was launched a little less than a year and a half ago by Von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and Severin Hacker, his PhD student. Since then, without a single ad placement, the website has attracted over three million users on computers and iPhones and the numbers are sure to keep growing with the recent release of the new Android app.

The reason Duolingo is free is because users do translation work as they learn. It’s brilliant, really. First, users take lessons and work their way through an extensive skill tree that rewards them with points as they unlock new levels. Then, when they have a basic knowledge, they can test their skills by translating texts from Duolingo clients — Wikipedia for example. Duolingo then employs a crowdsourced model where other members upvote, downvote and edit translations until the texts are fully translated.

“The final translations are extremely accurate,” Von Ahn said. “As accurate as those from professional translators.

Through this model, Duolingo users practice their language skills and, in return, receive free intensive lessons in six different languages, with more on the way. It’s rumored that a Mandarin program may soon be available, but Von Ahn wouldn’t confirm it.

This is good news made better by an independent study that found 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to one semester in a University-level course. That’s right, according to the 8-week study, a semester usually takes more than 34 hours of work, so the study implies Duolingo is more effective than going to school.

I asked Von Ahn what we can expect next from Duolingo, and he said more languages and never-ending improvements inspired by user feedback.

“We try to read and listen to everything our students say and based on that, we constantly improve the site. Even though Duolingo is already great for learning languages, we think it can be 10 times better,” he said. “We will continue improving the learning experience, including a better way to practice conversations.”

By Diego Cupolo


About the Author

diegocupolobiopic3Diego Cupolo is an independent journalist, photographer and author of Seven Syrians: War Accounts From Syrian Refugees. He serves as Latin America regional editor for Global South Development Magazine and covers international affairs as a freelance journalist, having reported on Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Nicaragua, Peru, Argentina and Chile. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Associated Press, The Village Voice, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine, UpsideDownWorld.org and Diagonal Periódico.

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