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Rewriting the rules of language learning: Guatemalan professor’s chart-topping app Duolingo

Up for learning a new language? Both of our Issue 7 scholar-social innovators would love you to give that a shot! The local star – CUHK linguist Prof Gladys Tang – champions sign bilingualism (Read her story here). While the name of our Guatemalan protagonist in this story may not ring a bell, you have probably come across, or even used his inventions: Duolingo, the hottest language-learning app worldwide, and reCAPTCHA, thanks to which we get prompted to identify unrecognisable letters and verify our humanity each time we log in. Say hi to 41-year-old Luis von Ahn!

Meet Duo – Duolingo's iconic mascot. (Figure: Duolingo)

During this challenging period, largely confined to home in extreme boredom, I became a devoted fan of Duolingo, turning to the app for half an hour of games every night to pick up my German. Boasting a convenient and neatly designed interface, Duolingo has a staggering total of 300 million users according to BBC’s report in January. Over 30 languages are on offer, covering intriguing options like the “international language” Esperanto and endangered native American language Navajo.

En route to the USA

Duolingo co-founder Luis von Ahn speaks Spanish as his mother tongue. At the age of 18, he made his way to the USA to study Mathematics. In 2000, he started his PhD degree in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, investigating how humans and computers may work hand in hand to tackle complicated problems. He eventually became a professor at the institution.

▼ Being entertaining and rewarding are the prominent features of Duolingo. Their team also uses artificial intelligence and data analysis technology to personalise learning content.

“No” to Microsoft, “si” to Google

Forbes described that one day in 2005, Luis’ phone rang. And guess who’s on the line? Microsoft founder Bill Gates himself. For over an hour, Bill persuaded Luis to join Microsoft and lead a research lab, though Luis was impervious to the compelling offer and stayed a professor. Instead, he applied for a two-year leave from the university in 2009 to work at another tech giant, Google – this probably explains his prowess in technology transfer.

Brought up in a country where half of its population lives below the poverty line, Luis experienced first-hand how English learning could be a life-altering step. In non-English speaking countries, English is a pivotal tool to shake off poverty – those who know the language are paid double that of those who don’t, according to Luis. Among the few fortunate in Guatemala, Luis was blessed with a doctor mum, as well as opportunities to learn English since a young age, go to a private school and further his studies in the USA. A little over 30 years old, he already sold two companies to Google, ranking amongst the world’s multimillionaires.

Swiss-born Severin Hacker, Duolingo's another co-founder. (Photo: Duolingo)

Rich and famous he may be, Luis never shrugged off those who can’t afford to learn foreign languages – the majority of his compatriots, citizens of underdeveloped countries and impoverished students from remote regions. During his tenure at Google, thoughts of designing a free language-learning tool already took shape. Upon his return to uni, he put the idea into practice with then-doctoral student Severin Hacker.

⯆ Duolingo is valued at US$1.5 billion. In this TV interview, Co-founder and current CEO Luis von Ahn shared the company’s plans to go public.

Paid users at 2%

Publicly debuted in 2012, the first version of the app delivered exercises the technician duo put together themselves. They knuckled down to mastering Spanish and German from language-learning books, googled the 3,000 most-used words in the two languages, translated them to English and formed simple sentences, finally writing algorithms that transfigure them into bite-sized lessons.

It’s been eight years since. The Duolingo team has expanded into 200 strong, including linguists and second-language-acquisition researchers who enrich the app with content involving more complex grammar and sentence structures.

Staying true to their mission of serving the needy, they imitated Spotify’s “freemium” model. Currently, 2% of their users are willing to pay, contributing to a yearly revenue of US$75 million. The remaining bulk of free users bring in an additional 15 million via advertisements. Duolingo targets to get listed next year.

That being said, Duolingo opens the door to a new language for the most part. Target to become a proficient speaker? Might be a better idea to follow the example of RM (leader of K-pop group BTS) – treat yourself to hours of foreign movies and dramas!

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS