TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Duolingo: Making Money By Offering Free Language Lessons

With the new web startup Duolingo, students of foreign language now have an ingenious and free alternative to purchasing formal classes or language-learning software. Users can create an account with Duolingo (or sign on through Facebook or Twitter) and immediately start web software-based language lessons in Spanish, German, French, or Portuguese.

The most innovative aspect of Duolingo is how it will make money—by selling its students’ homework! Duolingo will offer a low-cost translating service through which paying customers can upload content which they wish to have translated. The exercises that students translate for practice will be actual passages from the customers’ content, meaning that Duolingo’s students are simultaneously learning a new language and “crowd-sourcing” the translation of real documents. Duolingo currently offers this translation service for free, but it will begin charging for it next year.

Duolingo was created by Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He already has some ideas for how Duolingo will compete with other well-known language software like Rosetta Stone: “Most language-learning software providers have no incentive for you to learn. Once [they] get your $500, they’re happy. We’ll do a lot to get you to come back, because it really matters.”

They certainly are doing a lot to get their students to come back. Duolingo features an addictive level-up system based on points earned for completing lessons, a leaderboard for following your friends’ point scores, and an iPhone app that can keep you learning on the go. Moreover, since signing up for Duolingo French lessons, I’ve received a daily email reminder to “Keep the owl,” Duolingo’s mascot, “happy” by visiting the website and practicing.

Von Ahn and his associates are yet another group of inventors who are improving the lives of thousands by creating a profitable product. They deserve all the money and praise that Duolingo brings them.

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Image: Duolingo

Posted in: Business and Economics

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Anonymous

    Another amazing example of the awesome power of unchained humans. Yay free enterprise. How wealthy would we all be if our society was completely free?

  • Tjitze de Boer

    Amazing I’ll definitely try it out.

  • Taylor B. O’Neal

    I’ve been using DuoLingo for awhile to learn Spanish and am a huge fan. Not only is the business model innovative in combining crowdsourced translations in exchange for high quality learning but combining it with the latest thinking on memory, gamification and user experience. The result is an addictive, fun experience that results in good recall. While it’s not the only source I’d use to learn it blows a static textbook to smithereens.

    Another to check out for pure memorization (without the innovative business model) is Memrise. For theory around memory a Wired magazine article about the SuperMemo concept explains how these reminders work to push memorization to long term memory.

  • Justin Noggle

    I believe this issue is how we measure value without a currency. In the abstract all money is a measurement of value. Taking an analog measurement and turning it into a discrete measurement. Even assuming full socialism, there must be some way to compare the relative value of goods. A muffin is more valuable than a paperclip, but how do we measure that? With currency. Wealth is generated when we are productive. How much wealthier would we be if we are all as productive as our potential allowed us?

  • QuHarrison Terry

    As a college student learning Italian I’m really appreciative of Dulingo and the services that they provide

  • QuHarrison Terry

    looking into Memrise now thanks!