Duolingo Translates Free App into Profits

March 26, 2014

For many people, learning a second language is often a necessary step to take in order to climb up the career ladder. Of the 1.2 billion people across the world currently learning a foreign language, more than 800 million are studying English to get a better job. But language learning is such a time-consuming and expensive enterprise that many people are forced to end their instruction before reaching fluency. Even alternatives to personal tutoring, such as the popular software line Rosetta Stone, can be too costly for those who need to learn a foreign language.

That’s why a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and one of his PhD students created Duolingo, a free language-learning smartphone app released last year. Utilizing a clean interface and bright colors that wouldn’t look out of place in Angry Birds, Duolingo lets users choose from a selection of six languages to learn, with Russian, Chinese and Japanese forthcoming. The app has already netted more than 8 million monthly users and received Apple’s prestigious App of the Year award for 2013.

But while Duolingo’s ease of use has made it popular, the way it earns revenue could turn out to be revolutionary. Besides teaching people new languages, Duolingo also serves as a translation service for various websites. After a user has mastered a few lessons, the app will queue up a small article from partners like CNN or Buzzfeed for the person to translate. Once enough users have had a crack at it, the crowdsourced translation is tweaked by editors and then published. With existing language services translating less than 0.000001 percent of new web content, Duolingo’s founders hope that media companies will adapt to the app’s unorthodox but affordable service. However, others aren’t as convinced by Duolingo’s lofty goal to bring language to the world for free. “There are a lot of services like this from Silicon Valley that come on this plume of idealistic rhetoric, sitting on top of what is basically a profit-and-loss scheme,” says tech writer Michael Thomsen. “It’s a cheap and ineffective version of language learning.”



  1. What’s the major value to Americans in learning another language?
  1. Does Duolingo’s revenue plan look feasible?


Source: Parmy Olson, “Crowdsourcing Capitalists: How Duolingo’s Founders Offered Free Education to Millions,” Forbes, February 10, 2014.