In late 2009, Luis von Ahn could have been forgiven for just sitting around. The Carnegie Mellon computer science professor had just sold his company, ReCaptcha, to Google...
In late 2009, Luis von Ahn could have been forgiven for just sitting around. The Carnegie Mellon computer science professor had just sold his company, ReCaptcha, to Google. ReCaptcha builds those strings of distorted text people retype on websites to verify that they’re human. It simultaneously teaches computers to better interpret the warped images, thus expanding the computer’s knowledge base.
But instead of taking a vacation, von Ahn jumped to a new project: Duolingo, a free website and mobile app, cleverly gamifies language learning and has already built a 20 million strong user base. Ensuring no online action goes to waste, Duolingo invites students to translate a document that contains recently learned vocabulary – documents that companies like CNN and BuzzFeed pay Duolingo to translate. After poring through countless submissions for our Progress is GOOD Challenge- a partnership with Progressive - we are excited to crown Duolingo the winner.
“I try to look at the things that people normally do and then see if we can get something useful out of that,” says von Ahn, who grew up in Guatemala speaking Spanish. “If you start by thinking, ‘How can we get people to cure cancer,’ that’s harder than starting by thinking, ‘People play solitaire; how can we get something useful out of playing solitaire?’”
The ingenious business model allows Duolingo to bring free, easy language learning to the masses. An independent study by the City University of New York showed that skills learned from 34 hours of Duolingo – currently available in all Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, and Turkish-speaking countries – were equivalent to those gained in one U.S. college semester of language courses. Looking forward, von Ahn hopes to expand into Japan, China, and Korea, and eventually grow Duolingo to include mathematics.