2 in 1: Learn a Language and Help Translate the Web!

What I am about to present to you is massive-scale online collaboration at its zenith! Duolingo started with a mind-boggling question “how can we get 100 million people translating the web to every major language for free?” As it stands the web is partitioned into many languages and as a result presents a huge access barrier that is primarily defined by the languages one speaks. At its core, solving this question really means further democratizing access to information.

You may be tempted to ask, why not just get computers to translate everything and save all the hassle? In turn I have a question for you, have you ever tried using the free translation tools available on the web? Exactly. It makes far too many mistakes and cannot be trusted to take on such a mammoth of a task. The technology is not quite there yet and according to experts, won’t be there for at least another 15 to 20 years.

Need some proof? Below is a brilliant example of a question regarding JavaScript translated from Japanese to English.

This is question, English is faulty. Thank computer to translate to help. SORRY!!!

At often, the goat-time install a error is vomit.

How many times like the wind, a pole, and the dragon?

This insult to father’s stones?

Please apologize for your stupidity. There are a many thank you.

Alright you get it. We need some human minds behind this endeavor so why not pay expert translators to do it? What a simple solution, no? Yes, except for the fact that it would be exuberantly expensive given that translating a tiny fraction of the web, say Wikipedia, to Spanish would cost 50 million dollars alone. Who would pick up the bill?

So what is the answer already? Luis von Ahn one of the creators behind Duolingo, who formerly invented an ingenious way to digitize books through the use of CAPTCHAs, shared it in this riveting TED talk that I have summed up more or less in this post.

Duolingo is essentially a website where you can learn a new language for FREE while simultaneously translating the web. In this way, it is used for both personal benefit and the greater good.

Now how does it work? If you are a beginner you are given very simple sentences along with what each words means and your job is to translate it. As you advance you are gradually given more complex sentences. You can also check how other users translate and rate their precision. As an added bonus, people are given real interesting content like current news and affairs to translate. When the program was tested for translation accuracy, it showed that users were able to translate the material as successfully as professional translators. Moreover, identical translations are even combined together to improve overall accuracy.

It was estimated that with 100,000 users using the site, Wikipedia could be translated to Spanish within 5 weeks. When the number grew to 1 million, which is quite realistic given its growing popularity, the time span fell to a mere 80 hours.

To quote Luis von Ahn, Duolingo offers a fair business model for language education. An estimated 1.2 billion people around the world are learning a foreign language. In the US alone over 5 million people pay $500 or more for language software. An overwhelming 95% of the world does not have this kind of money so clearly the system is catered towards the rich.  With Duolingo while you are learning you create value. You do not pay with money but with time that would otherwise have been spent learning the language anyhow. In all respects this really is a win-win situation that does not discriminate against the poor. Mind you, in the TED talk the speaker does not address the fact that most of the world’s poor do not have access to a computer never mind the Internet to actually participate.

Nevertheless if successful Duolingo will revolutionize the way we learn languages and transform language translation to something people actually want to do. The website has not officially launched yet but you can sign up and take part in the beta testing going on right now for select languages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>