6 Questions

6 Questions with Duolingo Founder Luis von Ahn

by Heather Freiser

Guatemala-born Luis von Ahn sold two companies to Google by the time he was 30. Now he’s using his inventive mind — and good fortune — to help others achieve success.

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There’s power in people. It’s something Luis von Ahn knows well.

Whether he’s explaining the importance of crowdsourcing, using CAPTCHAs (online tests that prove you’re not a robot) to show that humans can do what machines cannot, or teaching computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and associate professor has built his entire life’s work around the promise of human potential.

His latest project, language app Duolingo, which uses “gamified” sensory learning techniques to teach dozens of languages, is no exception. The app is entirely free so that it can empower people at all income levels to pursue opportunities in languages other than their own.

We asked von Ahn about how he’s putting innovation to work for Duolingo’s 150 million users, where his ideas come from, and more.

What role did language play in your journey to becoming an innovator? And what role does it play for others?

I grew up in Guatemala, and I was fortunate to have learned English at a relatively young age, which meant I could go to college in the U.S. and get to where I am today. That’s not the case for most people in my country, where a good education is limited to those who can afford it. I wanted to do my part to help change that and reduce inequality in education, which is why I created Duolingo.

For many people across the world, languages open up powerful opportunities that can have a lasting impact on their lives. Learning English has the potential to double or even triple people’s income in many countries because it opens up access to new and better jobs.

How are you innovating to teach languages more effectively?

We’re pioneering the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand how people learn and stay motivated and using that to improve outcomes. For example, to determine if people should learn adjectives before plurals or the other way around, we do a test: We’ll take one group of users, and for half of them (chosen at random), Duolingo teaches plurals before adjectives, and to the other half it teaches adjectives before plurals. Then we measure which group learns better.

Duolingo Incubator allows volunteers to teach their native languages to other users. Can you speak to that innovation?

Almost all of our language courses are crowdsourced from bilingual volunteers around the world who want to share their languages and cultures. One example that’s especially powerful is the success of our Irish course, which launched in 2014. Today Irish is one of the top 10 most popular languages we offer, with nearly 3 million people learning it on Duolingo — while fewer than 100,000 people are native Irish speakers.

Tell us about a time in your life when you found inspiration in an unexpected place.

In 2009, just as I was about to turn 30, I was at a crossroads. I had just sold two companies to Google, and I was wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I decided to dedicate myself to education. I was particularly inspired by my upbringing in a poor country where high-quality educational opportunities are limited.

Because “education” is so broad, I chose to focus on language learning. To put it into perspective, there are 1.2 billion people across the world who are learning a foreign language, and about 800 million of them are learning English to get out of poverty. So I co-founded Duolingo in 2011, and my mission was to bring free language education to the world, and I haven’t looked back.

How many languages do you speak? What’s been the most difficult language to learn, and why?

I speak both Spanish (my native language) and English fluently, and I’m currently learning Portuguese on Duolingo. It’s a pretty challenging language to learn, but I practice a little bit every day, and I’m at the point where I can understand a lot of it and even watch Portuguese movies. However, when I speak the language myself, I sound like a combination of an American and a Mexican speaking Portuguese. So while I can pretty much understand everything and know what to say, my spoken Portuguese needs a lot of work.

And lastly, what’s a word in another language that might perfectly describe you.

If I had to pick a single word, I would pick a slang word in Guatemalan Spanish that means “obsessed”: engasado.