Language-learning startup Duolingo looks to double reach with Android app release

The first free language instruction and translation company to rival college-level courses has released an Android version of its popular technology. With the new mobile feature, which landed in the Google Play store on Wednesday, Duolingo expects to double its 3 million users, catapulting the Pennsylvania-based startup service to Silicon Valley-like prominence.

Android capability has been the number one request from customers and eager language learners. The service is already available for iOS and desktop, but Android has a larger presence than Apple in the global smartphone market (Duolingo is more popular outside the U.S.) and many users said the service is easier to use on mobile. The average user is on Duolingo about 30 minutes a day, and the most popular language is English.

Duolingo, founded in 2011, is the latest project from inventor Luis von Ahn, a Guatemalan entrepreneur and professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He built reCAPTCHA, the web interface that asks users to type the distorted word images they seen on a screen before buying concert tickets or entering a secure webpage. The technology, later sold to Google, tells a Website whether the user is human and protects it from Internet robots.

Duolingo has a two functions — to teach people foreign languages (it offers lessons in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian and Portuguese) and help translate the Web. On the first mission, Duolingo has already been wildly successful, proving by some measures more effective than Rosetta Stone and college courses. A December 2012 study by professors from Queens College in New York and the University of South Carolina found that a person with no knowledge of Spanish could complete the equivalent of an into-level college semester course in an average of 34 hours on Duolingo.

And, its free. Rosetta Stone’s complete set of Spanish instruction costs about $500.

The Android app will help Duolingo with its second mission, which is to translate as much of the Web as possible. Here’s how it works: somebody who needs a webpage translated uploads it to Duolingo. That document is then presented to Duolingo students who translate it as part of their language-learning assignments. More Duolingo users equals more translations. Then, when enough consistent translations are provided, Duolingo determines the correct translation and sends the document back to the original owner, who then pays for the translation. That is how, in theory, Duolingo makes money and stays advertisement-free.

On Wednesday, von Ahn hosted an ask-me-anything on Reddit, a social media and news website where von Ahn is a regular visitor. When some Reddit questioned Duolingo’s accuracy, he responded that the translations are “as accurate as those from professional translators.”

He also wrote that students are more likely to stick with the lessons because “we spend a lot of effort making Duolingo addictive — we think the hardest part about learning anything on your own is motivation.”

Up next for Duolingo? From the smartphone to the classroom. Von Ahn said he’s testing the service with several thousand students in classrooms all over the world, but it’s a tricky and expensive process that involves lobbying school districts and local governments.

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (192 Posts)

Heather Somerville reports on consumer affairs, retail and technology for the Bay Area News Group. She lives in San Francisco, where she enjoys rock climbing, yoga and biking across the Golden Gate Bridge.