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Could a Crowdsourced Language Program Translate the Web?

Yes, you can translate a language you don't know.

In the 21st century, the wealth of information available through the internet democratizes learning in unprecedented ways. But an age-old problem still keeps people around the globe from acquiring knowledge: Access to information is restricted by the languages you speak.

That could all change thanks to Duolingo, a new free language learning site spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Luis von Ahn. The site enables users to learn a second language (or third, or fourth) while simultaneously taking part in a crowdsourced web translation effort.

How can you translate a language you don't know, you may ask? If you're an English speaker looking to learn Spanish, the site starts you off with simple lessons to teach you the basics. But unlike your high school foreign language classes, you get to apply and hone your newly acquired language skills immediately. Beginning speaker are asked to translate simple sentences. As you gain more fluency, Duolingo increases the complexity of the translations you're allowed to tackle. You can also see—and learn from—how other users translate, and rate their accuracy.

While learning a second language obviously helps individuals communicate with people around them, the potential impact of Duolingo on society is much broader. According to Duolingo's creators, if a million people use the service, "the entirety of English Wikipedia could be translated to Spanish in just 80 hours."

Such a feat of translation might just be possible, because the demand for Duolingo is already high. The site launched as a private beta at the end of November—currently, English speakers can get on the waitlist to learn and translate Spanish and German. If Duolingo takes off, it could revolutionize the way we learn languages and further access to information.


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