April 15, 2024

Duolingo: 24 million people hooked on learning languages ​​with a single click | Economy and business

Duolingo has metrics typical of an entertainment application, not a teaching application. Every month, 83 million people connect to learn one of the 42 languages ​​it offers, of which 24.2 million do so every day (10 million more than the previous year). It is the educational application with the most downloads in the world. Guatemalan Luis von Ahn, one of its two founders, can’t wait to share his secret formula, proselytizing for people to copy his idea. “You only learn outside of class if you are motivated and we do everything we can to get people back on Duolingo. We use the same techniques as mobile games and social networks,” acknowledges the mathematician in a video conference from the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Each lesson has to last about three minutes and people have to feel that they have done well,” he continues. For example? “We do exercises that have an 80% probability that the students will answer correctly,” she confesses. If it’s too easy or too hard, you’ll give up. There is no shortage of challenges and rewards, the mascot, a small green owl, encourages you to continue if you are not logged in and the application highlights the streak of consecutive days of completing tasks. You can also get points, and there is even a virtual currency.

“When asked why they use it, the vast majority of our users respond: ‘Duolingo is almost as fun as Candy Crush and at least I’m not wasting my time,’ Von Ahn says proudly. “Or they say, ‘I spend a little less time on Instagram now because I’m learning French,’” he continues. In his opinion, the debate about children’s access to technology is redundant: “It is inevitable. “What we are trying to do here is make the use of the screen at least useful.”

In his entertaining talks with a viral audience, Von Ahn reviews his “rich” upbringing without being so, since his mother, who raised him alone as an only child, invested her resources in him. He graduated from the American College of Guatemala and this opened the doors to Duke University, where he graduated, and Carnegie Mellon, where he received his doctorate.

The return of languages

The application was developed at Carnegie Mellon in 2009. That year, Von Ahn, a mathematician and computer science professor, became a millionaire after selling Recaptcha – the system that forces you to prove that you are not a robot – to Google and, although he thought about retiring At 30 years old, he was excited to invent an educational tool that would facilitate teaching for the most disadvantaged. And he opted for languages, which have a quick return. “Knowing English increases the salary quite a bit in almost any job. In Guatemala it is almost double. If you are a waiter or an office worker, for example, it is worth a lot to you.”

Uriel Kejsefman, product manager at Duolingo, enjoyed a similar experience to Von Ahn. “I grew up in a middle-class Argentine family, and ended up studying in the United States thanks to English. That experience completely transformed my life,” he told EL PAÍS at the Qatar Foundation’s WISE educational summit. In his opinion, the international team of people from 30 countries shares “the mission of expanding these types of opportunities to more people.” Kejsefman studied at Yale and Harvard and, after working in the Education Department of the World Bank, landed at Duolingo two years ago. In his opinion it was a natural step: “It was evident that, in a post-pandemic world, education was going to advance from the private sector and from technology in particular.”

Duolingo has become extremely professional and is a company with more than 700 workers, including engineers (45%), designers (13%), teachers (9%), publicists, strategists and many more. But it was not always like this, because Von Ahn was one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing (the subcontracting of tasks to a large group of people through an open call) and founded a course incubator. “We initially created the courses with volunteers and that meant that many of them were really created by popular demand,” explains Kejsefman. For example: “The Irish created the Irish [Gaelic] course with our tools, and it is used by the majority of people who learn the language,” says the Argentine proudly. “At one point, when we were making over $100 million a year, it seemed strange to still be using volunteers. And we decided to start paying everyone,” adds the Guatemalan co-founder with a laugh. In 2019 they started advertising, in 2021 they went public and now artificial intelligence forces them not to sleep.

“Today we are going slower, the focus is on what we have being of very good quality,” explains Kejsefman, who speaks seven languages ​​and practices his German with the application.. Half of the users learn English, another 20% Spanish and another 10% French, but in its catalog there are languages ​​in danger of extinction, such as Navajo, Hawaiian or Haitian Creole, and rarities such as High Valyrian (of game of Thrones) and Klingon (from Star Trek).

For four years, Eduardo González-Mora, professor of Engineering at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, has been studying Esperanto. He tells EL PAÍS by email that he motivated him to learn it by reading the novel The war of the salamanders, by Karel Čapek, in which amphibians speak the language. Use the app at least 30 minutes a day. “On my trips abroad I talk to other people and usually write my notes in Esperanto,” he says.

Duolingo’s well-known owl mascot and other app icons. What the user sees and the schematic constructions of the designers.

In a short time, artificial intelligence will translate and dub any recorded material – Coursera is already doing it – but Kejsefman does not believe that people will lose interest in making themselves understood face to face, and the testimonies on social networks seem to agree with him. with the. Juan wants to speak some Italian to travel to Tuscany; Julia wants to say things in Swedish to her summer date; Antonio longs to soak up everything Japanese (cuisine, manga and language); Blanca, a K-pop fan, is struggling with the rudiments of Korean. Von Ahn is especially surprised by the exponential growth of this Asian language in parallel with musical fashion.

However, job opportunities are the main factor for downloading the app. It looks very clear on a world map. In English-speaking countries people study Spanish (in Canada it is French, their other official language), in Balkan Europe it is German and in Sweden immigrants struggle with Swedish. Students do not learn rules, but discover patterns with practice, like when they learned their native language.

There is a more sophisticated premium Duolingo Max option that comes ad-free, which Von Ahn encourages anyone who can afford it to pay for (8% of the total), resulting in better technology for other users. Artificial intelligence advances every day. “The idea is to have a realistic and almost natural conversation. For example, like the conversation you can have in a bar in Paris when the bartender comes and asks for your order,” says the product manager. “We have learned that it is much more magical if the app responds dynamically and coherently to what you tell it. But the magic of ChatGPT must be maintained according to the person’s language level.” And he has another novelty: “a button that explains what you did wrong when you make a mistake. Before it was impossible, because each user makes a different mistake.”

Duolingo has an English proficiency certification exam that is accepted in 4,500 universities, costs only $49 and does not require moving, which makes the process cheaper. “Almost all universities in the United States accept our certification upon application, half of those in Canada and quite a few in the United Kingdom and Australia,” says Von Ahn, looking to the future: “We are now expanding into mathematics and music”.

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