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.

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