November 9, 2023
The American app Duolingo, which offers language lessons as an addictive game, is convincing more and more users and has already seen its stock price more than double this year. But there is also criticism of the drill exercises and crazy phrases.
Without exception, Daan Defebere opens Duolingo on his smartphone at least once a day to complete a language lesson. He’s been doing that since April. ‘My streak, the number of consecutive days I have used the app, is now 201 days. I’d rather not lose that,” says the 26-year-old from Bruges, who only practices German. ‘I studied language and literature, but now work in Colruyt. Through Duolingo I try to maintain my knowledge of German and deepen my vocabulary.’
Defebere is far from alone. Duolingo, which offers language lessons as an addictive game, has more than 83 million monthly users worldwide. The figure grew by almost half in one year, it became apparent on Wednesday when the quarterly figures were published. Revenues rose 43 percent to $137 million, largely driven by stronger sales of paid subscriptions. Duolingo expects half a billion dollars in turnover for the entire year.
If you want to get acquainted with a language in an accessible way, this will work perfectly. But if you take a Japanese course and then travel there, you will definitely end up lost in translation.
Orphée De Clercq
Professor of language technology at Ghent University
While the listed language app
a year ago a net loss of 18.4 million dollars, now a modest profit of 2.8 million is on the books. That may also explain the regained enthusiasm among investors. The share is still a little below the peak of September 2021, when the mark of 200 dollars was within reach during the full corona lockdown period – with working and learning from home. But the upward trend is unmistakable: Duolingo has made a gain of 135 percent since the beginning of the year.
Behind the success of Duolingo is a computer scientist from Guatemala: 45-year-old Luis von Ahn. At the beginning of this century, the tech entrepreneur attended a lecture on Yahoo’s problems on a Blue Monday. The all-powerful internet company at the time failed to distinguish real user profiles from bots. Von Ahn started working on it. He developed the software program called Captcha, which is known worldwide as the scrambled text that you were presented with in the early years of the Internet to prove that you are not a robot.
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He gave his invention away for free to Yahoo, but Von Ahn was able to make money with it in another way. He replaced the meaningless words from the captchas with pieces of text from real publications, causing millions of internet users to unknowingly contribute to the digitization of books when checking their identity. Von Ahn sold the company he founded for this purpose, Recaptcha, to Google in 2009 for an unknown but significant amount. He used that fortune for Duolingo, which in its first years was run as a nonprofit research project.
Meanwhile, Duolingo, which consistently tops lists of the best education apps, offers free lessons in more than 40 languages. The most popular are English, Spanish and French. Defebere’s girlfriend recently took a Korean course. ‘She’s a big fan of K-Pop and Korean shows, so she wanted to give that a try. “Although Duolingo starts from scratch with the sounds and alphabet, I don’t think she would be able to strike up a conversation with anyone in South Korea,” he says.
For Orphée De Clercq, professor of language technology at Ghent University, Defebere hits the nail on the head. ‘Duolingo makes clever use of gamification, with virtual crowns and coins. Yet as a linguist I remain hungry. Training mainly focuses on basic skills, such as reading and writing. Pronunciation and interaction are barely there,’ she says. ‘If you want to get to know a language in an accessible way, that works perfectly. But if you take a Japanese course and then go on a trip there, you will definitely go lost in translation end.’
A lesson in Duolingo is often a random series of exercises, in which individual words and often peculiar sentences – ‘Excuse me, I am an apple’ – have to be translated. ‘Duolingo starts from an older model, with drill exercises. You work intensively on the language, but do not acquire all the necessary skills. If you make a mistake, you also get little meaningful feedback. The app tells you that you are wrong, but not why. What language rule is behind it? What did you miss?’
According to Duolingo, you can achieve the B2 (advanced) language level with the app, but De Clercq doubts that. She points to a study that critically approaches previous studies on the use of the app. ‘Studies are often conducted in collaboration with Duolingo, which is problematic in itself. Moreover, they do not take into account a whole range of variables: what is your native language, which languages have you learned before, are the languages similar, are you good with technology? Such things can help explain the positive learning effect of Duolingo,” says De Clercq. ‘The app is a nice addition and there is certainly no harm in using it. But you still learn language better in context and by interacting with others.’
Also math and music lessons on Duolingo
In the margins of the quarterly results, Duolingo announces that it will add music and math lessons to its application. ‘For students, this creates new, compelling reasons to try or return to Duolingo. You can you streak (the number of consecutive days you use the app, ed.) maintain this by taking a math lesson one day and a music or language lesson the next,” it says.
The music lessons, which are currently only available in English and Spanish, will be available on iOS starting this month.