The History of Duolingo

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Answers by Luis Von Ahn, Co-Founder and CEO of Duolingo and reCAPTCHA, computer science professor at CMU, on Quora.

A: The whole thing started as an academic project at Carnegie Mellon between me and my PhD student Severin Hacker. I had just sold my second company to Google, and we both wanted to work on something related to education. Education is very general, so we decided to concentrate on one kind that is in huge demand everywhere (except the US): language education.
It turns out there are over 1.2 billion people learning a new language around the world. Now, the majority of these people, like 800 million of them, are learning English, and don't have very much money. In fact, the reason they are learning a language is to be able to get a better job, or a job at all. The majority are not learning French because they want to get ready for a trip to Paris over the summer. They're learning a language to get a job at a call center.
Here's the crazy part about this. There's a huge number of people that want to learn English, and most of them can't pay, but the ways to learn a new language typically require them paying, because somebody has to make money. It's either that you learn a language in middle or high school, which means you're pretty wealthy because you go to a school that offers foreign languages; or you learn it in college or adult classes, in which case you're also pretty wealthy because you can pay for those; or you buy some sort of software like Rosetta Stone or Open English, in which case you have $1,000 to spare.
So, the largest part of the market was not being addressed because there was no great way to make money from them. Most people who wanted to learn a language couldn't really afford the best ways of doing it. We wanted to have a way to teach people languages for free. But not just free.
We wanted to have the best quality of language education, and offer it for free.

A:Before we launched, we had a pretty cool splash page where people could sign up to be invited to the private beta. The splash page had a very clear message: unlike other language-learning software that costs hundreds of dollars, Duolingo would be 100% free and therefore accessible to everybody.
At around that time I gave a TED talk about the Duolingo idea, which was viewed by over a million people. This got more than 300,000 people to sign up for our private beta.
After our public launch in 2012, our main marketing approaches have been word of mouth and PR. By now, we've been written up in virtually every major newspaper in the world.
I'm proud to say we've never spent any money on advertising.

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A:
In the short term, we're working on a really cool way to teach conversation in other languages. I can't mention too many details, but we're very excited about it.
We're also working on bringing Duolingo to schools. We've met a number of inspiring teachers looking to make a difference in their students' lives and have seen the effect that Duolingo can have as a classroom tool. We created Duolingo for Schools last year and already 100,000 classrooms are using it - without any paid marketing, just word of mouth. The feedback we've gotten is inspiring, and we're developing progressively more tools to help teachers reach their goals.
In the longer term, we want everybody to have access to all types of education of the highest quality. We started with languages, but we won't stop there.
The educational system throughout the world is pretty broken. For example, in my country, Guatemala, only 24% of the people who graduate from high school have the required reading and writing level, and only 7% have the required math level. On top of that only about 60% of the people actually graduate high school. And even in countries like the US, after learning math five days a week for almost twelve years, the most advanced thing most high school graduates can do is to add fractions.
We think we can help by developing intelligent apps that teach the most important subjects: reading and writing, math, physics, etc. What's particularly exciting is that for the first time in history, we can observe how millions of people learn and improve based on this data - this was impossible until very recently. So while there are conflicting theories about how to teach something better - what to introduce first, how to broach a particular topic, etc. - we can actually test these theories at a large scale and help people learn more information in less time. And just as importantly, for the first time we can offer access to education in a medium that can reach billions of people at relatively little cost (smartphones).
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