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Duolingo: The 2013 App of the Year

on Mon, 12/30/2013 - 10:54

Application software programs have been around for decades, but since 2008 the shortened term “app” has been more readily associated with programs designed to run on mobile phones rather than home computers. In 2010, the phrase was even named “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society, demonstrating the degree that these software applications have weaved their way into the Twenty First Century in just a short amount of time. The Pittsburgh-based Duolingo, meanwhile, has been around an even shorter period, having launched in June 2012, but the language-learning software program has likewise made a big splash within the tech community as evident by it being named “App of the Year” by Apple.

Duolingo is the first language software to win the award, as well as the first company outside of Silicon Valley to be honored with the title. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, meanwhile, reports that the user base for Duolingo has soared from three million in May 2013 to a staggering sixteen million by the end of the year. Equally impressive, the company has raised $18.3 million dollars in startup capital since its inception, received a Webby Award in May and then signed online giants CNN and BuzzFeed to its client list in October. Despite such success, Duolingo’s latest honor was still somewhat unexpected. “Part of the surprise is that the App of the Year is usually awarded to entertainment or game apps,” CEO Luis von Ahn told the Pittsburgh Business Times. “So it was a big surprise that they would name an education app.”

Duolingo initially began as a solo project between von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and graduate student Severin Hacker, but later became more-fully developed after enlisting a larger team of programmers. The website offers two services—language-learning and translation abilities. The first part operates as a video game, with users given four “lives” at the start and awarded points with each successful lesson that they master. Points, as well as “lives,” are lost when mistakes are made, and a user must retake a lesson once all of their lives have been used up. While the “language learning” aspect of Duolingo is free, the website began charging for its translation services in March 2013.

Although there are many other language-learning programs available on the market, Duolingo was specifically developed for those unable to spend hundreds of dollars on such software packages, as well as to provide a more personalized approach to the education process. “Most language-learning software providers have no incentive for you to learn,” Luis von Ahn explained to the MIT Technology Review in November 2012. “Once they get your $500, they’re happy. We’ll do a lot to get you to come back, because it really matters.”

One way to keep users coming back is to expand the number of languages available. Duolingo currently offers lessons in Spanish, French, German, Italian, English and Portuguese, but that list will grow in 2014. It’s not just the employees of the company that are involved in that expansion, however, but the Duolingo “community” as well. In fact, a number of key members are already developing language lessons for Japanese and Russian. Duolingo’s future focus will also apparently go beyond vocabularies that are spoken on planet Earth. “We’ve actually had several people apply to teach Klingon,” von Ahn told the Pittsburgh Business Times. “And it’s not just Klingon. We have people interested in teaching Elvish, Dothraki from Game of Thrones—it will all be there.”

And why not? With the success that Duolingo has had in such a short period of time, there’s no reason it should be limited by just one universe.

Anthony Letizia (December 30, 2013)

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