Pittsburgh's language learning technology companies are creating international buzz
May 28, 2013 4:00 AM
Mike Elchik, president and CEO of WeSpeke — an online community for people to teach, learn and practice languages — at his office in Crafton. Projected on the screen are Dafyd Jones, left, WeSpeke Web developer, and Marisol Garcia in Madrid.
By Deborah M. Todd Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Between video conferencing and global chat rooms, the Internet has smashed most of the walls that prevented people from different countries from communicating. With language being one of the last barriers, two Pittsburgh companies are leading a charge to use the Web to build a connected, multilingual world.
Duolingo, a free online service that provides a combination of language learning and translation services, and WeSpeke, a free language learning site that uses face-to-face communication between users who speak different languages, have made significant strides in the industry during their initial phases of operation.
Duolingo, launched last year by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn and CMU doctoral student Severin Hacker, has soared to 3 million users worldwide and is now run by a staff of 27 in its Oakland office. Upgrades made in March now provide users with an offline mode that downloads activities and a speech recognition function.
Additionally, Duolingo will release the service to 500 million Android users this week with a new app and a deal is in the works to allow users to translate articles for a major American news organization that Mr. von Ahn declined to name. Currently, Duolingo is available in iOS and its users are translating commercial documents and books into different languages as they complete learning exercises. Duolingo's Android app will be available at the Google Play store starting Wednesday morning.
In its short run, Duolingo has caught the attention of technophiles at PC Magazine, who gave the service four and a half out of five stars in a March review, and Mashable, which named it "One of Eight Startups to Watch" in 2013.
It also ranks as the top education app in Brazil and several other countries. This month, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences presented Duolingo with The Webby's People's Voice Award for best Educational and Reference source for handheld devices.
Duolingo's success, which has brought top engineers and language experts from across the globe to Oakland, could benefit startups across the board in the region, Mr. von Ahn said.
"[Mashable's] top eight startups mainly came from Silicon Valley or New York; we were the only Pittsburgh startup. Out of the people we have at Duolingo, 20 out of 30 have moved to Pittsburgh from somewhere else, and these are high-paid engineers," he said. "This is putting Pittsburgh on the map for the startup scene."
WeSpeke cofounder Michael Elchik also wants to put the city on the map as a primary source for language learning. Mr. Elchik, a seasoned tech entrepreneur whose digital microphone company Akustica sold to Bosch for an undisclosed amount in 2009, was able to raise $1.73 million in seed funding for WeSpeke on the strength of his reputation and his idea.
WeSpeke, which launched its open beta site in February, uses a teleconferencing tool and personality-based algorithms to connect people across countries with others hoping to learn their language of origin.
Intermediate English speakers hoping to brush up on French for a senior class trip can connect directly with French students seeking to polish their English for finals.
A text box allows users to write out correct spellings and phonetic pronunciations for words, and has a subject box allowing them to decide what course their conversations will take. To maximize the chance that conversations are lasting and well-meaning, WeSpeke connects users with people who hold similar interests and would want to discuss similar topics.
Only 90 days after the launch of the company's open beta, WeSpeke has more than 1,000 users from 81 cities in 16 countries and has made deals with 110 registered user schools internationally.
Between Duolingo' existing buzz and WeSpeke's emerging acclaim, Mr. Elchik said this is a prime moment to shine a spotlight on the region's resources for language education and technology.
He said Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute, which is headed by WeSpeke co-founder Jaime Carbonell, and programs at the University of Pittsburgh help to set a foundation that technology can only help to strengthen.
Those features can help the city take a hold on a global language learning industry that brought in $58.2 billion in 2011, according to Monroe, Wash.-based market research firm Ambient Insight Research.
"We already are a center for excellence in language and culture, but I believe when we step back to see the assets we have here, there's an opportunity to firmly establish those assets and grow them out," Mr. Elchik said.