Mind your language says Duolingo

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles December 19, 2019
Turning language learning into a game pays off big time.

language learning

If you're a native English speaker the chances are you have a poor grasp of languages other than your own and while English may be the current language of the boardroom in many locales, if you cannot communicate in another language then you can forget understanding culture and diversity to any degree. Some things just don't translate well. Of course the same works in reverse for people whose only learned language is their own. Duolingo wants to cross those language boundaries. 

Luis von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo says he wanted to do something involving education that he could feel “passionate” about

 My views on education are very related to where I'm from. I was born in Guatemala. It's a very poor country. And a lot of people talk about education as something that can really equalize social classes. What I always thought was the opposite of something that brings inequality to social classes because what happens is that poor people barely learn how to read and write, particularly in countries like Guatemala, and because of that they can never make a lot of money. Whereas, people with money can buy themselves the best education in the world and they keep having a lot of money.  

So, I wanted to do something that would give equal access to education to everybody and I decided to start with languages, especially English, which is foundational to expanding job opportunities for many non-English speakers.

Today, his brainchild, Duolingo, built with graduate assistant Severin Hacker, is the most downloaded language app on the web with more than 30 million users who complete more than 7 billion exercises each month. As any adult who has tried to learn a second language will tell you it’s not easy and requires a lot of work.  What accounts for Duolingo’s popularity?  Von Ahn said:

Learning a language is a lot like going to the gym. Everybody kind of wants to do it but it requires a lot of effort to win. We decided to make the app feel as much like a game as possible. And, when you use Duolingo you see there's a lot of gamification aspects. It gives you points every time you use it in each of the sessions. 

 Each of the lessons takes about three minutes so it's very short. And there's a lot of different aspects--animations and everything that makes it really feel like you're playing a game so we can just keep people addicted. 

Duolingo currently offers 91 courses in 30 languages, including English, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Swahili, Arabic, Hawaiian, Navajo, Yiddish, Scottish Gaelic and even High Valyrian--the language spoken by Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” 

 More interesting for investors, perhaps, is the fact that Duolingo is bringing in more than $100 million a year in revenue—more than its paid online rivals like Rosetta Stone and Babbel.  So, how does a “free” app make money?  Von Ahn said

 About three years ago, we started putting an ad at the end of every lesson.  Since we have tens of millions of users that ad actually gives us tens of millions of dollars. Then we added a subscription option that lets users turn off the ads.  We’ve become the top grossing app in the education category in the world. But we don't charge for the content so you can still learn anything on Duolingo for free.

 Von Ahn remains sufficiently passionate that the software has to be free that the company’s web page declares: “Learn a language for free. Forever.”  In addition to the subscription option, Duolingo introduced another potential revenue generator, the Duolingo English Test (DET), to compete with the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the dominant English proficiency exam for foreign students applying to American universities. Owned by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service, the TOEFL costs $215 and requires students to spend three hours at a proctored testing site. By contrast, the DET costs $49, lasts 45 minutes or less and can be taken remotely provided a student’s computer has a working speaker and camera to prevent cheating.

The latest $30 million in a Series F funding for Duolingo from Alphabet’s CapitalG late-stage growth venture fund, bringing Duolingo’s valuation to $1.5 billion. In total, Duolingo has raised a total of $138 million, including from existing investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Union Square Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Drive Capital, Ashton Kutcher and Tim Ferriss.  

 Duolingo said it will use the new funding to increase its employee base by 50 percent with a plan to reach 300 by the end of next year. The company has 200 employees today, double its size in July 2017 at the time of its last fundraising, alongside additional offices in New York, Seattle and Beijing.

My take

Appropriate language skills are viewed as a ticket to a better life around the world. Because English is the default language of business, international enterprises and governments are turning to the online education software space for solutions that expand job opportunities for their workers and citizens. The same is true for native English speakers; a working knowledge of, say Spanish or French, increases the likelihood of moving up in the world. It certainly means expanded horizons.  As Von Ahn said:

Language gives people access to job opportunities, it opens up a world of knowledge because of the Internet, it overcomes limitations.  If you’re a driver, for example, knowing (another) language lets you make more money by driving tourists. If you’re a waiter, knowing basic English allows you to make more money by working at an international hotel. If you look at C-level executives in international companies, it is very difficult to get to the top without a knowledge of basic English. 

As I said at the top of this story, there is a flip side. My colleague Den Howlett spent many years in France and Spain where people will refuse to communicate with you unless there is an effort to do so in their native tongue, however badly. But that bit of effort pays off handsomely in terms of social and business opportunities. And while much of what Duolingo focuses upon is the acquisition of English, none of us should be complacent enough to think this will always be the way of the world.  

If I were in the language learning space right now, I would be worried.  

Duolingo is an intuitive, interactive, and addictive platform that is gaining momentum daily—not just in terms of new users but in retaining the attention of people who have signed up.  It’s a disruptor in the learning space. I’ve been using it for a week or so and I’m convinced that I’ve already learned more Spanish than I did in a year in a college class 50 years ago. When it reminds me that I need to put in my 15 minutes on the app, I look forward to doing the lesson.  

\Now, if only someone could come up with an app that made me want to go to the gym. Perhaps it's the case that the gym has yet to succeed in making me feel like I'm having fun?