The Word: Duolingo makes it fun to learn languages

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NEW YORK -- In mid-December, Apple named Duolingo -- a piece of language-learning software -- its 2013 iPhone app of the year. Since then, I swear every native English speaker of my acquaintance has suddenly begun guten tag-ing, buongiorno-ing and comment ça va-ing. I myself have been habla-ing Español for the past three weeks, with Duolingo as my guide. Verdict so far? ¡Excelente, mis amigos! Until we genetically engineer the Babel fish that Douglas Adams envisioned in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Duolingo may be our best bet for a global uptick in inter-lingual understanding.

The app currently teaches Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese to English speakers and teaches English to speakers of those languages plus Dutch, Russian, Hungarian and Turkish, with more on the way.

As with all else that manages to hold the attention of post-millennial America -- Foursquare, Instagram, "The Bachelor" -- the key to Duolingo's success lies in gamification. Whether it's vying to become the virtual mayor of a taco joint, racking up likes for our vacation photos or battling viciously to wed a homophobe we've just met, we clearly enjoy turning the stuff of life into bite-sized, recreational competitions.

Duolingo recognizes that humans are wired this way. It also recognizes that the key to learning a new tongue is repetition. So the app transforms language study into an amusing diversion, with points, leaderboards and video game "lives." At the end of each successfully completed round, we're rewarded with a trumpet fanfare and a delicious sense of accomplishment.

This is the most productive means of procrastination I've ever discovered. The short lesson blocks are painless and peppy, and reaching the next level (and then the level after that) becomes addictive. I've lost track of time as I've buzzed through tutorials on Spanish conjunctions and prepositions. A co-worker likes to crank out French modules on his subway commute. One friend confided that she's stayed up for hours past her bedtime learning German -- ja, this Fräulein simply can't put Duolingo down. As I recall, these are not the sorts of giddy emotions that were stirred in Mrs. Gonnerman's 10th-grade French AP class.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Duolingo: It doesn't cost a cent. It's free to download and, according to 34-year-old co-founder Luis von Ahn, it will be free forever. When Mr. von Ahn, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University, discusses his creation, he's less excited by the idea of yuppie professionals in Manhattan brushing up on their Italian and more enthused about folks in Latin America attempting to improve their socioeconomic status.

"The majority of people in the world who want to learn a language are learning English because it might get them a better job," says Mr. von Ahn. "And learning a language usually requires money. You need to attend a good middle school that has a foreign languages department or buy a program like Rosetta Stone that can cost hundreds of dollars." Mr. von Ahn himself grew up in Guatemala but went to a school with English classes. "I was one of the wealthy few," he says. He came to the United States to attend college and graduate school, then went on to become a professor at CMU and eventually a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

If it doesn't charge users and, so far, doesn't serve them any ads, how does Duolingo make money? It tricks you into working as an unpaid translation service. At the end of some lessons, Duolingo will ask you if you want to practice by translating a real-world document. Which will turn out to be, say, a BuzzFeed article. By melding together enough stabs at this task from high-level Duolingo users, the app can render a surprisingly accurate translation. Which is worth good money. So far, Duolingo has contracts with BuzzFeed and CNN to translate stories from English into languages such as Spanish, French and Portuguese. This service is earning Duolingo hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but Mr. von Ahn predicts he will be adding a raft of new clients soon. "The language translations market is huge," he says. "It's a $30 billion per year market."



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