Fast-Growing Duolingo Caps Off A Big Year With The Crunchie For “Best Education Startup”

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Language learning software has never been particularly “sexy,” nor have its makers managed to produce a bounty of memorable user experiences, for that matter. While it might not be quite ready for the former, Duolingo is fast-becoming the poster child of a new generation of language learning products that are actually enjoyable to use, and able to combine fun with function.

In December, Apple named Duolingo the “iPhone App of the Year” for 2013, which, along with its nearly 9 million active users, seem to indicate that its gamified, mobile language learning formula is working. And last night, the startup capped off its banner year by taking home the Crunchie award for “Best Education Startup” of 2013.

While CAPTCHA, reCAPTCHA and Duolingo founder Luis Von Ahn wasn’t able to make it to the Crunchies this year, Duolingo’s new head of communications, Gina Gotthilf, was there to accept the award. We caught up with Gotthilf backstage to ask her a few questions about Duolingo’s success and where it’s headed next.

As to Duolingo’s origins, the language learning app owes its design and original concept to von Ahn and his student, Severin Hacker, who developed Duolingo as the basis for a translation service powered by students translating real-world sentences while learning a language. Today, this is has become a key point of differentiation for Duolingo in the increasingly-crowded world of language learning.

Rather than forcing its users to memorize phrases, sentences or words, the app turns to the Web, literally, to provide fodder for students to learn by translation. As users proceed through its lessons and programs, they translate the Web, reading and listening to the language as presented by real, native speakers. The app leverages video clips, images, sound bites and other interactive prompts to help students memorize and remember important words and concepts.

The other key to Duolingo’s success, especially among the millenial crowd, is its use of gamification, allowing students to earn points as they proceed through its lesson plans, docking students “lives” when they make mistakes. Get too many wrong and Duolingo makes you start over.

The app monitors your progress as you go, keeping tabs on which words and concepts you struggle with, serving its lessons accordingly. Today, Duolingo has added a total of six languages, including English, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, and French, and more are on their way.

Just like von Ahn previously did with reCAPTCHA, the original idea behind Duolingo was always to use it as the basis for a translation service where Over time, Duolingo expects to turn this into a tool where businesses can order paid translations from Duolingo’s users. Currently, the service only uses its web app to show these real-world texts from blog posts, news articles and WikiPedia entries, but in the near future, the iOS app will also integrate these features.

It’s worth noting, though, that Duolingo will always remain 100% free for those who want to learn a language. As von Ahn stressed, this means there will be no ads, no freemium model and no “five-easy-payments” plan. The combination of the language learning and translation service, von Ahn says, is “a mutually beneficial arrangement for both parties: students receive a high-quality, completely free, language education, and organizations are given human-quality translation services.”

Duolingo, however, appears or produced many memorable experiences for that matter. Duolingo, the fast-growing language learning service,

the increasingly popular online language learning service, announced one of its most ambitious projects to date