April 5, 2024

Duolingo: Expansion of language apps (2011)

by Mateusz Wiącek

Luis von Ahn, a Guatemalan entrepreneur and a consulting professor in Computer Science, founded Duolingo in 2011. It is the most downloaded education app worldwide and has over 500 million registered users, with 42 million of those using the application on a regular monthly basis.

Duolingo was initially not so much a language learning app, but a translation app. Its initial idea was to give it to users for free, and use their interaction with the app to translate texts for other organizations.

Duolingo had a public commitment to be free for everybody and remain free forever. They used this claim originally on their website. 

The user was the actual product at the beginning. The translations in the early exercises were actually sentences from other texts. When multiple users give the same translation for a particular sentence, Duolingo considers it to be a legitimate translation and saves it accordingly.

Duolingo experienced rapid user growth soon after its launch, fueled by its appealing combination of gamification elements and a commitment to making education freely available. The gamified structure, with features like skill levels, experience points, and streaks, made language learning engaging and enjoyable for users.

The initial business model with translation did not work, and it collected around 200 million dollars from the investors. Duolingo switched to ads and freemium models ca. 2016, and nowadays it offers a paid version called “Duolingo Plus”.

Duolingo is now a public company and valued at 1.5 billion dollars.

The efficiency of the app is questioned, for it has easy exercises and too much gamification which is known to have negative effects on learning like  long-term demotivation, loss of self-belief, issues with concentration, and addiction. In the contrastive study on negative gamification effects by Brazilian scientists, incl. Cláuvin Amanda, gamification was responsibile for trigerring unethical behaviour, such as cheating the system, such as doing an exercise just to win a virtual reward or logging in very briefly just to have Duolingo note that we did something on a given day, in order to keep the streak.

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