Why Duolingo (And Google) Are Entering The Standardized Test Game

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide own smartphones, and many of them are learning English. Duolingo sees a moneymaking opportunity.

Free language-learning app Duolingo has had a wild ride. In just over two years on the market, the company’s main product has racked up 30 million users, taking on entrenched giants such as Rosetta Stone. Founder Luis von Ahn has repeatedly stated its business plan: to offer a quid pro pro where users help translate content for sites like BuzzFeed and CNN in exchange for free learning. Now Duolingo is tackling a new challenge: online standardized tests.


This past April, Fast Company’s Alice Truong wrote about Duolingo’s plans to offer online language certification. Now Duolingo is revealing more details of the ambitious program today, called Test Center. Available in an Android version on the Google Play store and a version for Google’s Chrome web browser, it puts Google in the standardized testing sphere.

Online freelance and offshoring giant oDesk and Carnegie Mellon University (von Ahn’s alma mater) are the first organizations to confirm they will work with Duolingo’s standardized English-learning exam. oDesk has confirmed they are using the application to verify that applicants speak English, while Carnegie Mellon is currently conducting testing on the platform.

“Odesk works with freelancers,” von Ahn added. “Most people who hire freelancers from oDesk are in the U.S. or (native) English-speaking countries, but many freelancers are abroad. Many people on oDesk say they know English, but there’s no way to verify it; this will show their oDesk certificate score in the profile.”

The app, which costs $20 (but will be free for an undisclosed amount of time), is specialized exam software, entirely separate from Duolingo’s primary iOS and Android products. Users take the standardized exams, which last 20 minutes, from home, work, or in a library. A remote proctor monitors the test via video, and Duolingo claims the experience is less cheating-friendly than a standard in-classroom exam. Alongside monitoring video and audio, the app monitors phone activity during the exam and prevents multitasking between applications.

Duolingo’s Gina Gotthilf says that while there is no financial involvement from Google in the partnership, Google has supported the company with API integration and that the search giant will feature Duolingo’s certification exams in promotional materials. While standardized test studying and preparation has increasingly migrated to smartphones and tablets over the past few years, Duolingo’s is the first product to actually move the exam onto the phone itself.

For both Duolingo and Google’s Android and Chrome platforms, it’s an ambitious move. Von Ahn emphasized that the $20 test is generally ten times cheaper than an in-classroom English certification, and there’s a massive global demand for English-language learning. Savvily, Duolingo is also raising the access bar: The tests, which are shorter than an in-classroom test, can be taken at home and have a price point that’s perfect for the expanding global middle class.


According to von Ahn, the test is being aimed at TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the best known English-speaking exam for non-English speakers at U.S. universities.