Interview with Luis von Ahn from Duolingo

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Here at i-studentglobal, we have recently developed a liking for the Duolingo app by Luis von Ahn. We were fortunate enough to speak to the creator of the app about the start of Duolingo and what it means for those who wish to actively learn another language. 

Luis von Ahn headshot

Luis von Ahn, CEO and co-founder of Duolingo

1. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about where the idea for Duolingo came from?

It all started as an academic project at Carnegie Mellon between me and my PhD student Severin Hacker. I had just sold my second company to Google, and we both wanted to tackle education. We chose to concentrate on one specific area of education that is in huge demand everywhere: language education.

It turns out there are over 1.2 billion people learning a new language around the world. Most of these people, like 800 million of them, are learning English and are not well-off. They’re learning a language to get a better job, or any job at all.

Here’s the strange part: there are all these people that want to learn English, and most of them can’t pay, but the ways to learn a new language usually require them paying, because somebody has to make money. It’s either that you learn at a fee-paying school that offers foreign languages or you learn in college or adult classes which also cost a lot of money, or you buy some sort of software, which will often set you back $1,000 or more.

So, the largest part of the market was not being addressed because there was no great way to make money from them. Most people who wanted to learn a language couldn't really afford the best ways of doing it. We wanted to have a way to teach people languages for free. But not just free. We also set out to make it the best possible quality language education you can get.

2. The platform is a very diverse one, but with a focus on gamification, is it geared more towards younger users? Do you have a specific target audience?

As I said earlier, Duolingo was started to give everyone an opportunity to learn languages, particularly those that couldn’t afford to do so. In a sense, this has been our target audience: there are actually more people learning English on Duolingo than any other language.

At the same time, our mission is “free language education for the world” and that really means everyone.

I’m incredibly proud of the numbers and diversity of people using Duolingo. For example, young students in every single school that is connected to the Internet in Colombia is using Duolingo to learn English. On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Gates is also using it. The things that make Duolingo effective — lessons that are free, fun, and personalized — apply to everyone. We actually recently received an email from an 83-year old Irish reverend who was writing to tell us how much he was enjoying learning Welsh on Duolingo.

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