The Company Reinventing How To Learn A New Language

Duolingo engaged its online community to take its free language education service to a new level.

Duolingo, the free language learning app, is rapidly expanding by embracing crowdsourcing as a way to provide more language courses to its 12 million users.

The company launched with six core languages--French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, and English--providing free language instruction using a simple graphic interface similar to Rosetta Stone, to users who can't afford the hefty price tag of language learning software programs.

Although they wanted to add every single language on Earth, hiring experts for each new language wasn't a viable option. Since its launch in 2012, Duolingo has received requests for over 500 languages, including fictional ones like Klingon.

It became very obvious that the small team that works on the service would be unable to create lessons to meet this demand. "We got a lot of emails from people [requesting] all kinds of languages but also a lot of the emails would say, ‘Hey, I'm a native Swedish speaker and I'd be happy to help you add a Swedish course,'" says CEO Luis Von Ahn.

Creating A Crowdsourced Language Incubator

To keep up with demand, Duolingo launched an ambitious project in October 2013--the Language Incubator--allowing the service's community members to collaborate on the creation of new language courses. Crowdsourcing wasn’t a new concept for Duolingo. Its business model has users translating texts for paying customers. But von Ahn’s primary concern with opening up the service for member-developed courses was that the quality would suffer.

So rather than employ the Wikipedia model where anyone can contribute, Duolingo allows interested members to apply to create a new course. "We have a lengthy application where you have to tell us why you want to do it, why you think you're the right person to do it, and you have to translate a few things," says von Ahn. So far, Duolingo has received 25,000 applications from members who want to create new courses.

When Duolingo decides to provide a new language, they go into their database and filter through the applicants, selecting those they feel are best equipped to be course moderators. The moderators then choose whoever they want to be contributors to the course. Courses are typically made with a team of up to five contributors. Duolingo provides guidelines on material and what the course should cover, as well as feedback data to help moderators improve the course.

Surprisingly Successful

Contributors aren't financially compensated, but von Ahn says that hasn't been a problem. "They believe in our mission of providing free language instruction. Usually they're doing it to help people from their country learn a language for free," he says. The language incubator has already created 20 new courses and has more in production.

Although there were many reasons to believe that the language incubator idea could fail--namely, moderators losing interest and not completing the courses, or delivering poor quality instruction--von Ahn says this hasn't been the case at all. In fact, he says the courses created through the language incubator often take less time to make and may even be better quality.

"When we would make our courses, it would take us about 90 days to make a course. On the language incubator, the average time that it takes to make a course is 60 days,” says von Ahn. He says that fewer problems are reported for courses created through the incubator. The reason for that could be that the incubator courses are compiled by multiple contributors who check each other's work.

The language incubator has been a huge success for Duolingo, and the path for the company’s future growth. "In our forums, the most popular posts are related to the incubator. The people who work on it are like heroes," says von Ahn.

[Image: Flickr user Börkur Sigurbjörnsson]

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