Access for Everyone: A Model for Free Online Learning, with Duolingo's Luis von Ahn

Luis von Ahn: The problem with language education, there's about 1.2 billion people in the world learning a foreign language. It's one of the most common things that people learn in the world, everywhere in the world except maybe for the U.S., it's not that common in the U.S., but everywhere else it's about 1.2 billion people learning a foreign language. Now, if you look at it more deeply it turns out about 800 million of them satisfy three properties. The first one is they're learning English. The second one is that they are doing so in order to get a better job or a job at all, and the third one is that they are of low socioeconomic condition. So basically most people learning a foreign language are poor people learning English to make more money or to make some money.

Now, the kind of ironic thing is that usually the way there are to learn languages, and particularly to learn English, costs a lot of money. So for example, in the U.S. there's Rosetta Stone, which is $500-$1000, in Latin America there's a program called Open English, which is about $1000. So it's this ironic thing that most of the people that need to learn a language are poor people that are doing it so that they can get money but it requires quite a bit of money to do so. Which is why with Duolingo we decided to make a completely free way to learn a language. And that's the whole premise of Duolingo. When we started we thought we have to make a way to learn a language but it has to be 100 percent free.

When we started Duolingo it was not just me, it was me and my co-founder whose name is Severin Hacker who is very funny because his last name is Hacker. When we started we knew we wanted to do a free way to learn languages. This is what we wanted to do. It's easy to say that it's free, the problem is when something is free you got to find a way to finance it and to make it sustainable. So the question really became is how do we teach languages for free but such that we can actually finance the whole thing? The solution to this came from many of my previous projects have had this very similar idea. And it's an idea that can be traced back to an idea that I had when I was a kid. It was a terrible idea but at the time I thought it was an amazing idea. And it was that I wanted to have a gym where it was free to go to the gym. It's a free gym, but all the exercise equipment was connected to the power grid and people when they went there as they exercise they would generate electricity that the gym would sell to the power grid. So that's why it was free. We wouldn't charge people but we would make money by selling electricity to the electric company.

It turns out this is a bad idea because it turns out humans are actually not very good at making electricity. But I thought it was a good idea at the time. Also there's another reason why it's a bad idea. Turns out with gym economics actually most of the money is made from people not showing up, whereas in this case we really needed people to show up because we needed to generate the electricity. But it is not a good idea but it's a very similar idea what we ended up doing with Duolingo and what I have used in my previous projects where the idea is can we offer a service for free but as we're offering it for free, can we extract some value out of people doing the thing anyways? So in the case of the gym it was extracting electricity. The question is what value can we extract out of people learning a language? And it turns out what you can do is you can get people who are learning a language to help with language translation. So what we do with Duolingo, the way we finance Duolingo is that whenever we teach somebody a lesson, so we may teach them about food words in a given language, at the end, once we've taught them about it we say hey, if you want to practice what you just learned with something from the real world, here's this document that has never been translated before that is in the language that you're learning. Can you help us translate it to your native language? And then we sell that translation.

So for example, CNN is one of our clients where the idea is that CNN writes everything in English, they send it to us, then people who are learning English on Duolingo, in order to practice their English they get a CNN story in English and they have to translate it into their native language. Now we get multiple people to translate the same story and they vote on each other's translations. And at the end we come up with one best translation for the whole article and then we send it back to CNN and CNN pays us for having translated their article. So that's the idea is that people as they're learning a language they're helping us do the translation, and thus they're practicing. It's completely optional. You can learn everything there is to learn on Duolingo without ever practicing this way. But about half the people who get presented an opportunity to translate say they would like to translate it. So it ends up working out.

Ever since we launched Duolingo it has grown a lot. We now have 42 million users, from zero to 42 million users in two years. We are the most popular way to learn languages in the world. There in fact in the United States there are more people learning a language on Duolingo then in the entire U.S. public school system. So we have a lot of people learning a language. They're also not paying. And also in the developing world there are millions of people who before were just not able to learn a language, they didn't have access to it, whereas now with Duolingo they do. So we've already changed the industry. If you look at for example of the stock price of Rosetta Stone is really not good. But I think we're only getting started. I think we're nowhere near as good as I want to be. I think we should be able to teach you a language three, four times more effectively than we do in terms of time it takes to learn it. And so we're going to be working on that on really making it so that we are your one-on-one tutor but it's a computer one-on-one tutor and I think we'll be able to do it.

Luis von Ahn describes the model for the free language-learning platform, Duolingo. The idea, he says, goes back to his childhood, where he imagined a model for a gymnasium that sustained itself by reselling people-produced energy. Von Ahn is the CEO and Co-founder of Duolingo.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.