Can you guess the size of global translation industry? It’s $30 billion. And the value of learning foreign languages? Priceless! How about matching language students with clients who seek affordable translations? It’s just a brilliant idea, and accomplished almost fully by Duolingo!
Free language learning platform which has more than 20 million users currently, has recently added 4 user languages to its system. Members living in the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey and Hungary are now able to choose from 5 language courses to join, or build their own courses collectively.
Duolingo enables users to learn languages while having fun, while paying nothing in exchange. They may just contribute, if they like, to the financing of the site via doing partial translations asked by corporate clients that include CNN and BuzzFeed. Designed like a game, users unlock new skills by earning points, lose a life when they make a mistake, and can compete with their friends on the Web and on mobile apps. With over 20 million users who joined the platform through word of mouth, Duolingo claims to be the best way to learn a new language today.
Founders Luis von Ahn, who is best known as the creator of CAPTCHA, and Severin Hacker (no, not a pseudonym) met at Carnegie Mellon University where the former has been teaching and latter was a student. The two came up with the idea of Duolingo thinking about how to create a self-funded education project that would benefit millions.Guatemala-born Luis had always wanted to work with education, and knew that one of the most sought-after skills was also one of the most expensive.
“People who most need to learn a language are not those seeking to try new bistros in Paris, but those who want a job at a call-center, for example” says Gina Gotthilf, the head of communications at Duolingo. And yet, language courses like Rosetta Stone or private classes are too expensive for most of those people, deepening the social divide.
Voluntary translations fund the startup
Given the huge size of the translations industry, Duolingo is exploiting the brilliant idea of harnessing the translations typically created by students while practicing language skills to fund the project. So well-systemized and run, the crowdsourcing platform has already backed by prominent investors, including Union Square Ventures who is known for having invested in very successful digital startups such as Twitter and Tumblr. Actor Ashton Kutcher and author Tim Ferriss are also among the investors. And this happens when still only 10% of the users are generating revenue for Duolingo. So there’s big chance of remarkable growth out there.
What about the accuracy of the translations, you may ask, when they are done by ‘students’? Gina says most of the process is based on users editing each others’ translations and voting on the best translation for each sentence. Some of these users gain the status of “Trusted Translator” once they’ve acquired many translation points and proven themselves to be good judges. These can give a final approval on each text before submitting them to a client. Company is also getting ready to launch a translations-specific page that will allow future clients to upload documents for translations themselves.
On the learning side, Duolingo actually teaches its users how to speak, listen, read and write. In addition to translation exercises, users are asked to transcribe spoken words and to pass tests that employ speech-recognition technology as well. Combining all aspects of language learning in a digital platform, Duolingo is said to be extremely effective. An independent study by the City University of New York (CUNY) has shown that 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a US university semester of language education, while Rosetta Stone users, for example, need 55-60 hours on the platform to reach the same level, says Gina Gotthilf.
Only one fifth of the users come from the US
The service has been very popular in Latin America (particularly in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico) and are now expanding into many new parts of the world. Its international presence is significant, as about only 4 out of 20 million Duolingo users come from the US. Four additional user languages recently added have been released by the Language Incubator, a program Duolingo launched in October to allow our community to create language courses collaboratively. And they hope these new languages will eventually cover every possible language including dying and fictional languages such as Dothraki! They are working on additional tools too, like some products to help teachers and other organization leaders track the progress of a group of students. Finally, they will launch a certification system of their own.