Duolingo has been wildly successful. It has pulled in 500 million total registered learners, 40 million active users, 1.5 million premium subscribers and $190 million in booked revenues in 2020. It has a popular and meme-ified mascot in the form of the owl Duo, a creative and engaging product, and ambitious plans for expansion.There’s just one key question in the midst of all those milestones: Does anyone actually learn a language using Duolingo?
“Language is first and foremost a social, relational phenomenon,” said Sébastien Dubreil, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It is something that allows people to make meaning and talk to each other and conduct the business of living — and when you do this, you use a tone of different kinds of resources that are not packaged in the vocabulary and grammar.”
Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn estimates that Duolingo’s upcoming product developments will get users from zero to a knowledge job in a different language within the next two to three years. But for now, he is honest about the limits of the platform today.
“I won’t say that with Duolingo, you can start from zero and make your English as good as mine,” he said. “That’s not true. But that’s also not true with learning a language in a university, that’s not true with buying books, that’s not true with any other app.”
While Dubreil doesn’t think Duolingo can teach someone to speak a language, he does think it has taught consistency — a hard nut to crack in edtech. “What Duolingo does is to potentially entice students to do things you cannot pay them enough time to actually do, which is to spend time in that textbook and reinforce vocabulary and the grammar,” he said.
That’s been the key focus for the company since the beginning. “I said this when we started Duolingo and I still really strongly believe it: The hardest thing about learning a language is staying motivated,” von Ahn said, comparing it to how people approach exercise: it’s hard to stay motivated, but a little motion a day goes a long way.
With an enviable lead in its category, Duolingo wants to bring the quality and effectiveness of its curriculum on par with the quality of its product and branding. With growth and monetization secured, Duolingo is no longer in survival mode. Instead, it’s in study mode.
In this final part, we will explore how Duolingo is using a variety of strategies, from rewriting its courses to what it dubs Operation Birdbrain, to become a more effective learning tool, all while balancing the need to keep the growth and monetization engines stoked while en route to an IPO.
“Just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”
Duolingo’s competitors see the app’s massive gamification and solitary experience as inherently contradictory with high-quality language education. Busuu and Babbel, two subscription-based competitors in the market, both focus on users talking in real time to native speakers.
Bernhard Niesner, the co-founder and CEO of Busuu, which was founded in 2008, sees Duolingo as an entry-level tool that can help users migrate to its human-interactive service. He thinks that Duolingo has limitations that would barr users from getting fully fluent.
“And that’s where we come in: Our belief is that you should not be learning a language just by yourself, but [ … ] together, which is our vision,” he said. Busuu has more than 120 million users worldwide.
Duolingo has been the subject of a number of efficacy studies over the years. One of its most positive reports, from September 2020, showed that its Spanish and French courses teach the equivalent of four U.S. university semesters in half the time.
Babbel, which has sold over 10 million subscriptions to its language-learning service, cast doubt on the power of these findings. Christian Hillemeyer, who heads PR for the startup, pointed out that Duolingo only tested for reading and writing efficacy — not for speaking proficiency, even though that is a key part of language learning. He described Duolingo as “just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”
“We have 250 linguists; we don’t just translate courses,” Hillemeyer said. “What we need to do to teach an English person to understand French is different from what a German native speaker needs to understand — all these courses are created individually for the language combinations, and this is the kind of linguist nerd level of stuff.”
Putting the ed back into edtech
One of the ironic legacies of Duolingo’s evolution is that for years it outsourced much of the creation of its education curriculum to volunteers. It’s a legacy the company is still trying to rectify.
The year after its founding, Duolingo launched its Language Incubator in 2013. Similar to its original translation service, the company wanted to leverage crowdsourcing to invent and refine new language courses. Volunteers — at least at first — were seen as a scrappy way to bring new material to the growing Duolingo community and more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bring new language courses to the app.