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Duolingo Founder: Personalized, Adaptive Education Is More Efficient

At Code/Mobile, Duolingo explains how it can do a better job at the current education system.

Asa Mathat

For some, learning a new language is an extracurricular activity or something they have to do for school. But for others, learning a language, namely English, is a means for getting a job and out of poverty. The problem is that many of the language-learning programs are expensive and impersonal, so Duolingo is trying to fix this.

Today at Code/Mobile, Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn joined Re/code’s Liz Gannes onstage at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay to talk about how his company is using apps to bring more affordable and personalized solutions to language learners.

Duolingo is different from other language-learning apps like Rosetta Stone in several ways. First, it’s free. The company makes money by having its users translate international content from companies like CNN and Buzzfeed, which pay Duolingo for the service. While it sounds strange to have non-native speakers doing the translating, von Ahn said it works, and CNN hasn’t fired them yet. The translations also run through several different users to check accuracy.

Another difference is that Duolingo breaks up lessons into bite-size exercises that you can do while waiting for the bus, and makes learning more like a game and less like a chore. The company can also monitor when users might be having problems with a concept, and conduct tests to see when it’s best to introduce a lesson. If the app detects that the user is taking a long time to answer, Duolingo might serve up an easier question the next time. Or the company can tap user data to figure out, for example, if it’s better to introduce plurals in the Spanish language lessons earlier in the learning process or later.

When Gannes pointed out the potential creepiness of this type of monitoring, von Ahn said, “But we’re not trying to sell you anything. We’re just using that data to figure out the best way to teach you. Within a few hours, we can actually figure out if it’s better to teach plurals later or earlier. That is something that in the offline education system would have taken 15 years to figure out just because the iteration speed is so slow.”

“All education should be like this. There’s a lot of inefficiencies in today’s educational systems,” he added. “That’s why I think we can do a better job than the current educational system. I don’t think we should substitute schools. I think schools serve their own purposes, like socializing people and, I don’t know, learning about bad food from the cafeteria. But I do think the way teachers teach is going to change, and it should be done in a personalized way and fun.”

Bringing solutions to those who can’t afford spending big bucks also continues to be a focus.

The company is about to launch a Windows Phone app. Von Ahn joked that while it might not sound like a big deal to the audience at Code/Mobile, it is a huge deal for Duolingo users in developing countries where Windows Phone is the second-biggest platform behind Android.

In July, Duolingo also launched Test Center, which administers language proficiency tests for $20. The fee goes toward hiring a human proctor to watch a video of the test taker to make sure he or she isn’t receiving outside help, and it’s much less expensive than other certified tests. The standardized TOEFL iBT English test, for example, costs between $160 and $250. That said, the company has only started working with 12 U.S. universities to accept its tests.

Duolingo plans to tackle basic literacy next. Von Ahn said there are one billion adults who don’t know how to read or write, but about 100 million of them own a phone, so the company is going to try to reach them with a new app. Duolingo is still trying to figure out how to monetize the app, and there’s no launch schedule, but the company is dedicated to coming up with a solution.

“There’s just a huge problem,” von Ahn said. “There’s a billion people we have to teach how to read and write, and the current system is not getting to them.”

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