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TechnologyI am Luis von Ahn, co-inventor of CAPTCHA & reCAPTCHA, Founder/CEO of Duolingo, MacArthur Fellow and computer science professor. AMA!

May 18th 2017 by vonahn • 23 Questions • 284 Points

Hello Reddit! This is Luis von Ahn. I’m from Guatemala. A while ago, I invented CAPTCHAs, those squiggly, annoying letters you have to type all over the Internet to prove that you’re a human. Sorry about that!

After selling my second company to Google in my 20s, I decided to dedicate my life to making education accessible to everyone in the world. In 2011, I co-founded Duolingo, a free and fun way to learn languages, which has since become the most downloaded education app in the world. There are more people learning languages on Duolingo in the US than there are people learning languages in the whole US public school system.

Some cool stuff:

Q:

I'm really disappointed at only finding out TODAY after eagerly looking forward to this that it's only for iOS. Developer-speak aside, can you please please provide any kind of estimate/window on when this will be up on the Android version?

A:

1-2 weeks until it's on Android.


Q:

Finnish, Arabic and Latin are the most requested languages on the forums. Do you have plans to add these soon (especially Finnish since Finland celebrates 100 years of independence this year)? If you don't trust the forums, check tinycards or memrise and they are still top 5-top 10 languages (among the ones you haven't already added).

A:

We will eventually add all of these!


Q:

Finnish, Arabic and Latin are the most requested languages on the forums. Do you have plans to add these soon (especially Finnish since Finland celebrates 100 years of independence this year)? If you don't trust the forums, check tinycards or memrise and they are still top 5-top 10 languages (among the ones you haven't already added).

A:

Just kidding.


Q:

One of the problems I've found is that Duolingo's exercises get very repetitive and don't really give you much opportunity to exercise the part of your brain that actually generates original sentences. It's great for practicing vocabulary and translating, but I don't find it very good for really learning to speak. Do you have any plans to introduce chat with other users or other exercises that give you an opportunity to build your own sentences?

The chat bots feature is a nice step in that direction, by the way.

A:

Chatting with other users is something that a lot of people request but that in practice not a lot of people use. There are dozens of systems that allow you to do this, but even the most popular of them has less than 0.1% of Duolingo's active traffic. I believe it's because most people just don't have the guts to talk to strangers in a language that they're not very familiar with (I know I don't!). This is why we launched the Chatbot, and are working hard to make it as close as possible to a human!


Q:

What about other kinds of exercises? Any plans to introduce more variety?

A:

Yep, working on that!


Q:

Hi Luis,

I was hoping you might be able to give us some insight as to exactly how new languages are chosen to be added to the incubator, as I'm sure you're going to be inundated with questions in this AMA from people wanting more languages added. I hope you understand that from our point of view, it seems like the way Duolingo builds courses by using volunteer contributors means that adding courses requires little effort from the Duolingo staff themselves. I'm sure that's not true, but I was just hoping you could explain why some courses are selected to be added to the incubator and others are not.

I'm aware that there is a section on the Duolingo forums explaining this, but that post says that voting for course suggestions on the forums will get them added. It's therefore confusing that the Finnish request post, which is the second most upvoted forum post of all time has seemingly been ignored by Duolingo.

So my question is: how do you make the decision on which courses get added to the incubator?

A:

I ask my mom. She's a nice lady, but doesn't like Finnish.


Q:

Hi Louis,

Huge fan of Duolingo and the project of free language education for all.

What is your view on the sort of sci-fi idea of languages being instantly learned by people like a data transfer straight to their brain? Is that something you would like to see in the future, or is it something you would be against?

Also, what do you envision ideally for Duolingo 5 years from now?

A:

Instant learning would be awesome! Unfortunately I have no idea how to make that happen, so for now I'll stick with mobile phones :)


Q:

Why did you decide to build Tinycards?

A:

For a while our users had been asking us to develop a flashcards capability to help them memorize vocabulary and other concepts to complement our language courses. We decided to launch Tinycards as a way for people to learn anything in a fun, game-like way, even beyond languages. Over 100,000 decks have been created to date on Tinycards! For those learning Japanese, we even offer flashcard decks for Hiragana and Katakana.


Q:

Thank you for taking the time! I use Duolingo everyday and love it. I wonder: Is there an educational principle behind the occasional strange sentences, or are they just for fun?

A:

There are many reasons for them. For one, they get people talking about Duolingo. But also, they help you remember stuff!


Q:

How do the web usage statistics compare to mobile?

Personally I only use the app occasionally, but I wonder if mobile usage vastly outweighs desktop or if there are other interesting statistics worth mentioning about that.

A:

About 85% of our users are on mobile versus 15% on web.


Q:

What's your second favourite language learning site? :)

A:

Tinycards.


Q:

EDIT: Someone is downvoting all of the new questions. I'm going through and trying to counteract-it, anyone else want to help me?

Hey Luis. Thanks for matching my donation to the ACLU earlier this year.

Where do you find your inspiration? I've never been able to imagine how someone could dream up something like CAPTCHA or Duolingo, and then take steps to actually realize that vision. Do you have any other neat ideas on the horizon, that you'd like to explore if either the technology or the resources for it could be secured?

A:

Thank you for donating to the ACLU! My inspiration for Duolingo came from my experiences growing up in Guatemala which is a very poor country. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get a high-quality education and it changed my life. In many countries, learning English can double your income potential, but I saw that the people who most needed to learn English were also those who could least afford it. It didn’t seem fair, and that inspired Duolingo’s mission to make language education free and accessible to everyone. Eventually I would love to do this for all aspects of education so that everyone in the world, no matter how much money they have, would have access to a high-quality education through the power of technology.


Q:

Hello Luis. Congrats on the (partial) launch of Japanese!

  1. What's the next African language and roughly when can we expect to see it in the incubator?

  2. Is Māori perhaps on Duo's radar?

Thanks for your dedication to education Luis.

A:

Zulu! We’re always open to new course suggestions and volunteers can sign up to create them in our Incubator


Q:

Hi Luis,

Thanks so much for Duolingo - love the mission, the product. So happy about the Japanese release!

A few questions for you:

1) what unique product challenges did the Japanese language present compared to other language releases?

2) what quantitative or qualitative validation did your team do to figure out that the Japanese language was the next important language to launch?

3) do you think you'll have a feature that maybe includes video clips or music to keep things different and interesting? maybe have that feature be traded by streaks/lingots? I'd love to see something like that as the styles of questions are a bit repetitive currently.

A:

(1) The biggest challenge was the fact that not only is Japanese one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, but it’s even more difficult to teach effectively. That’s why our team devoted so much time and effort to creating a new way to teach Japanese (more on that here. It’s different not only from other Japanese courses but also from every other course currently on Duolingo. One big challenge we faced was in making the decision to teach Japanese characters. Although some textbooks and language classes get away with using only Romaji (the representation of Japanese sounds using the western alphabet), we strongly believe that you need to learn the basics of the writing systems to effectively communicate in Japanese. To do this, we developed a completely new set of exercises dedicated to teaching the Japanese writing systems. In the course, you can learn the shapes, pronunciations, and meanings of all Hiragana and Katakana characters, and nearly 100 basic Kanji (Chinese characters) that you need to know in order to reach basic proficiency.

(2) Japanese had been by far our most-requested course in Duolingo’s five-year history. It became clear that it made sense to launch the course because demand for it was so high. Every time we would post anything on social media, several people would immediately comment with, “What about Japanese?”

(3) Music/video clips is an interesting idea! We’re always working toward improving the way languages are taught, and I think this is something we may consider down the road.


Q:

Hello! I've been an active user on Duolingo for several years now, huge fan

I just wanted to ask you what has been the most rewarding thing for you to see happen because of the app? Any stories you've been told that encouraged you?

A:

This is one of the best parts of being at Duolingo! We often hear from users with very inspiring stories. One that stands out recently is that of Edilson Garcia Vargas, who is probably the most famous security guard in Colombia, if not worldwide. Edilson is a bilingual security guard who is currently learning five languages with Duolingo. His story was covered by a major magazine in Colombia, Revista Semana, and went viral across Latin America. He also has his own YouTube channel where he inspires fellow security guards to pick up new languages.

Another story came from a user we found on Reddit in r/duolingo. /u/mirikitani told us a story of how learning Irish on Duolingo changed her life and now she wants to become an Irish language teacher herself.

We often hear stories of people who found love through learning another language on Duolingo, people who find new job opportunities after learning a foreign language, or people who are better able to connect with the older generations of their family.

These stories are what motivate us to keep working every day.


Q:

Hi Luis, will future versions of the duolingo mobile app incorporate the grammar lessons that are on the website?

A:

We will have much better grammar lessons on mobile, later this year.


Q:

One of the things I really admire about Duolingo is how it uses A/B testing to improve its effectiveness. If you were to run some A/B tests in a traditional classroom environment, rather than with online learning, what would be some variables that you would be eager to experiment with?

A:

Probably the first thing I'd A/B is the teacher. Yeah.


Q:

Are there any plans to incorporate more substantive grammar modules into Duolingo? I like that it keeps things strong on the translation and conversation side, but a little bit more grammatical and theoretical context would be helpful.

A:

Yes, we definitely have plans to do this! We're in fact already testing it in a few language courses. The hard part is that most people don't understand grammar terms, so we've had to find ways to explain rules without, for example, talking about indirect objects.


Q:

Congratulations the Japanese course! Many people will benefit from it, myself included. I do have some concerns over the no-grammar approach, though. Grammar was my one weak spot when learning Japanese through previous methods; I managed to learn more than a 500 kanji and thousands of vocabulary, but I could never form a sentence by myself. Could I expect it to be different this time around, despite the approach chosen?

A:

Our Japanese course does actually teach grammar and is designed to introduce new grammatical concepts gradually along with other vocabulary as you advance so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. For more details on the approach we took to developing the course, check out this blog post. Hopefully as you advance through the course, you’ll find it helpful and intuitive!


Q:

Hi Luis! Thank you for all you've done for the language learning community! Is the "Gems" update confirmed to be released any time soon? If so, will it affect the desktop version, i.e. converting all my lingots into gems? Thanks!

A:

Gems are available to about half of our users on iOS right now and will roll out to all iOS users soon. It's not coming to the web version anytime soon because we don't want to deal with credit card payments.


Q:

Hi Luis, thank you for helping me learn Spanish!

In your opinion, what do feel is the biggest mistake people make when learning a new language? And also, what is the best tip for learning a new language that most people don't realise?

A:

I always say that learning a language is a lot like going to the gym: many people want to do it, but it’s difficult for many to turn it into a regular routine. The key to success is to make it a habit. Our research team recently analyzed the behavior and learning patterns of Duolingo users and identified three key habits that determine success in learning a new language (you can also read more about it in their article on TechCrunch):

  • Study daily, especially at bedtime: Studies have shown that sleep helps with improved language learning, and we have found that Duolingo users who study for 15 minutes every day before bedtime have an advantage over other users. Consistent daily practice is also key. Especially when you are just starting out, it’s worthwhile to develop a daily routine and study a few times a day to keep your memory fresh. That way, you’re more likely both to stick with it and to learn more in the long run.
  • Avoid binging: To successfully learn a language, one of the keys is to not binge, as this has been shown to decrease learning and retention. Instead, develop a habit of distributed practice, or a number of short study sessions over a longer period of time. In order to master a language, you are better off studying a consistent amount — no matter how small — as regularly as possible.
  • Regularly review material: It can be tempting to plow ahead and learn as much new material as you can, but chances are, you will forget what you learned unless you spend time reviewing it. More than a century of psychology research has found that you are more likely to remember ideas and concepts if you regularly review old material. This helps the knowledge work its way from your short-term memory and into your long-term memory.

Q:

Hola Luis!

Besides using Duolingo to translate the web, is this project also being used for any kind of research in machine learning/natural language processing?

Looking forward to when duolingo also teaches you programming languages! :)

A:

Hello!

We actually no longer use Duolingo to translate the web and haven’t for a long time. It turned out that was not the most effective way to teach language so now we focus more on improving learning within Duolingo. In terms of machine learning and language processing, we have a team of PhDs in these fields who conduct research and study learning outcomes from 170M Duolingo users to figure out the best way to teach language. Our Chatbots are a good example of artificial intelligence and machine learning at work at Duolingo as they improve over time and learn from the responses our users submit in conversation with the Bots.


Q:

Thanks for making languages so much more accessible! What are some features that the Duolingo team are working on and which one are you most excited about?

A:

One feature that I’m really excited about is Chatbots. Private, 1-on-1 tutoring is one of the best ways to learn a language, but it’s also one of the most expensive. Our goal with Chatbots is to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to replicate the quality of a human tutor so that everyone can have access to the highest-quality education. Chatbots also allow you to practice conversational skills in a private setting which is a big step forward in language proficiency and this feature will continue to improve over time.