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Rachel Metz

A View from Rachel Metz

Want to Speak Dothraki? Duolingo Can Now Help

Language-learning site Duolingo will let volunteers build courses for languages like Arabic, Russian, and even Dothraki.

  • October 9, 2013

Since last year, Duolingo has offered free online lessons in a smattering of languagescurrently, just six of them, including English, Spanish, and Frenchthrough which users learn while also translating texts on the Web. The company often gets requests for more languages, but it’s time-consuming and costly to add each new one, and many of the ones users want won’t bring in much revenue, which comes from companies paying Duolingo for its text-translation services.

Now Duolingo is hoping to quickly ramp up the number of courses it offers without breaking the bank by rolling out a language incubator that allows volunteers to add all kinds of new tongues, ranging from widely-spoken ones like Arabic and Chinese to lesser-known ones like Kichwa to fictional ones like Elvish and Dothraki, that other users can then learn for free.

Duolingo cocreator and CEO Luis von Ahn says that Duolingo will allow people to apply to serve as volunteer moderators for each language, and the startup will choose a moderator who can then choose others to help contribute to the language course. Based on the company’s user base, which includes 10 million people—26 percent of them in the U.S.—the site is likely to have plenty of volunteers.

In theory, this could make it much faster to add each language. Von Ahn says it currently takes one paid person four months to add each language to Duolingo (a course, he says, is meant to give a user an intermediate-to-high understanding of a given language). Yet he suspects one or two moderators, working with five or six volunteers, may be able to complete a new language course in about a month. He expects about 10 languages, including Chinese and Russian, to be added within the first four or five months of the incubator’s life.

I’d guess it will be hard to maintain quality, at least initially, though it’s certainly possible that, similar to Wikipedia’s slow rise as an acceptable knowledge source, Duolingo’s crowd-sourced language Incubator will become an acceptable way to learn. Von Ahn obviously can’t know for sure how well it will work at this point, but he says Duolingo will be able to measure factors like how much of each course users complete, and if they return to the site.

He says the moderators will use Duolingo’s existing language-course blueprint, which starts with some basic words, concepts, and phrases and moves on from there. He says that while the languages Duolingo staff have added to the site include exercises where users translate online texts, this won’t initially be a part of the crowdsourced language courses.

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