Ah, language. Perhaps the most human and most analog thing around. Think back to when you first learned a language. Oh wait, you probably can’t remember because you were a baby. Alright, think back to when you first learned a second language. If you were like most Americans, you probably sat in a classroom with a blackboard and drilled verb conjugations. But the traditional classroom approach doesn’t work. Indeed, only about 25 percent of Americans can speak a foreign language and only 7 percent of those learned that language in school .
Enter Duolingo. Launched in 2011 by the same man who invented Captcha , Duolingo’s mission is twofold: first, they want to make free, high quality language learning software available to everyone. Second, they want that software to be adaptive to each and every user, such that language learners receive a uniquely tailored educational experience. This is delivered through a mobile app that serves up gamified language lessons for use on a daily basis.
While the aims are noble, how well does a mobile app replace a language teacher? Just as importantly, how does a company offering “free language education – no hidden fees, no premium content, just free”  make money?
So, if you’re the average Duolingo user, what exactly do you get when you fire up the app? Duolingo breaks down a language into compact and discrete modules, covering both thematic content (food, clothing, colors) and grammatical concepts (the preterite, question words). Users run through a battery of vocabulary quizzes and translation, conjugation, and pronunciation exercises (see the author’s feeble attempts at Spanish below) that build on each other. As you progress through the exercises, you’re rewarded with “Lingots,” a sort of gamified currency which you can redeem for some, um, interesting in-app digital prizes, such as a “flirting” lesson in the target language, as well as a new outfit for the owl mascot. Kind of lame, but the joy is in the learning, right?
The Business Model
So, we get that Duolingo is a fairly cool way to learn a language. And there’s all that great talk about “free and open for all.” But how does Duolingo keep the lights on? The answer comes back to that old adage about the Internet: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
Duolingo might seem like a straightforward language learning app, but it’s in the business of translation. Turns out, all those exercises and practice sentences generate an enormous amount of crowdsourced data, data which can then be packaged and sold as translations to sites such as Buzzfeed and CNN . That’s right, all those important and ground-breaking articles (15 Hedgehogs With Things That Look Like Hedgehogs, What Is Your Inner Potato, Which Ousted Arab Spring Ruler Are You?) are translated by Duolingo users for the entire world’s edification.
While the company is still young (and because they don’t disclose financials), it’s hard to say how effective the model has been. Globally, translation and language services is a huge industry, worth approximately $40 billion annually . On the old-fashioned side, most translators available today charge a relatively expensive fee (around $0.21 per word ) for their craft. Duolingo is betting that it can produce translations of comparable quality at a fraction of the price, as their translation staff (that’s you, by the way) works for nothing but Lingots. If traditional translators are the skilled artisans, Duolingo and its legion of 120 million users  want to disrupt the industry with mass production.
But this whole model is predicated upon two big assumptions. The first is that crowdsourced translation can hold up against bespoke professional translation. The second is that enough users will keep coming back to Duolingo for language instruction to satisfy demand for translations. The first question is hard to answer, as it’s yet to be proven that there’s a market for crowdsourced translation. Recent moves by Duolingo towards other channels of monetization, such as fees for language fluency exams , suggest translation consumers have yet to come around.
However, the second question seems to be testable even today: does Duolingo work for learning a second (or third, or fourth) language? Duolingo commissioned a study which found that 34 hours using Duolingo was the equivalent of one semester of a college-level language class . There’s likely just a bit of bias there and professional educators have much more mixed reviews . Certainly, if Duolingo is to keep growing little linguists, such that an army of translators can rise from the crowdsourced depths, they’ll need to keep delivering a consistent and high quality product that both works for users and incentivizes them to contribute more and more data. If they can’t, it might be the traditional translators who get the final word.
Word Count (797)