As stars fill the night sky in Veracruz, Mexico, 23-year-old Uziel Alejandro López kicks back at home to play on his Android smartphone. His thumbs breeze over the brightly colored screen, but this is no casual game.
He’s learning English on Duolingo, a free mobile app created 1,700 miles away by a technology startup in Pittsburgh, Pa. López has passed multiple lessons in one month, faster than his attempts on more than ten other language-learning apps.
The brain behind Duolingo is Luis von Ahn, 34, a boyish-faced computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Sometimes called the father of crowdsourcing, he’s best known for inventing the CAPTCHA, the squiggly word or words you have to type in on password-protected forms. Google bought his company, reCAPTCHA, and uses your free labor to verify hundreds of millions of words from books that its scanners can’t parse.
A similar kind of crowdsourcing keeps Duolingo in business, in a more sustainable way than an educational nonprofit like Khan Academy ever could. Once young López takes a few language lessons on the app, he and perhaps 30 other Duolingo users hone their skills by translating some text on a Wikipedia-style editing page.
In the fall of 2013 BuzzFeed and CNN started paying Duolingo to translate several dozen articles a day into Spanish and other languages. Von Ahn and his 29-year-old cofounder, Severin Hacker (his real name; it’s Bavarian), say partnerships with more publications are imminent.
Some contend the model is unethical. “The students are working for an abstract value, which is knowledge,” says Michael Thomsen, a multilingual tech writer who got into a heated e-mail exchange with Duolingo after blogging about how its system was exploitative.
Duolingo, like its client BuzzFeed and other Internet businesses like Facebook, is in the business of scale. It needs tens of millions of users to make the same amount of money that an older, traditional competitor might with much smaller numbers. It’s a “cheap and ineffective version” of language learning, says Thomsen.
Hacker can barely contain himself at this suggestion. “Free education will really change the world,” he says. “If we achieve that, then all the other issues are … I don’t know, seem not to matter to me.”
“You have to somehow continue convincing billionaires to fund you forever,” he says at a hotel in Mountain View, Calif. (Khan Academy has raised more than $15 million from the likes of the Gateses’ foundation and Google.)
Duolingo expects not only to cover its $500,000 in monthly costs but also to book its first profit this year. With around 8 million monthly active users and growing, it’s now the most popular language app, with six languages on offer and Russian, Japanese and Chinese on the way.
The startup cites an independent study showing that its users can learn the equivalent of the first college semester of Spanish in 34 hours compared with 55 hours with Rosetta Stone. In December Apple named it App of the Year 2013.
The company was born after Von Ahn sold reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009 for more than $25 million and started thinking about bigger problems to solve. Hacker was Von Ahn’s Ph.D. student, and it was in their weekly half-hour meetings in Von Ahn’s office between 2009 and 2011 that the two discussed the creation of a project around language.
Von Ahn was born and raised in Guatemala and saw firsthand how expensive it was to learn English, while Hacker’s Swiss childhood featured food labels and road signs in multiple languages.
They went on to raise $18.3 million from venture capitalists like Union Square Ventures and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher.
“There are 1.2 billion people learning a foreign language in the world,” says Von Ahn. Some 800 million want to learn English so they can get a better job, and it annoys him that many have to shell out $125 each for those yellow boxes of Rosetta Stone software.
Free Web-based alternatives like Duolingo, Anki and Memrise have already been putting the 22-year-old Rosetta Stone under pressure. Rosetta Stone is now forecasting a third consecutive annual loss, and its shares have halved since its 2009 IPO.
BuzzFeed executive Dao Nguyen says Duolingo’s crowdsourced translations are good but could be better, something the two are working on by passing corrections back to train Duolingo’s algorithm. At least its translations cost much less than the average industry rates of 5 cents a word for inferior ones to 20 cents a word for the best.
Duolingo is now talking with wireless carriers in Latin America about preinstalling the app on new smartphones, and one of the largest translation firms can’t hide its interest in a potential partnership. “I’m impressed,” says Mark Lancaster, founder of SDL, which grosses $330 million from selling translation software and human services.
“The problem isn’t that there’s not enough work to go around,” Lancaster adds. One study claims that language service providers work on only .000000687% of the content created every day. “It’s how efficiently the work can be done.”
Von Ahn has already received buyout offers from big players and said no. Having bought his last two companies, Google seems a likely contender. An acquirer might load the app with ads or translation requests from Nike or Pepsi. Von Ahn is okay with that, as long as the app remains free.