Learning A Language By Translating For Someone Else

About 1.2 billion people worldwide are trying to learn a foreign language, but most can’t afford to pay for instruction, writes Greg Toppo in USA Today. Meanwhile, the Web needs translating. Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks he can solve both problems at once:

“Von Ahn developed a ‘massive-scale online collaboration’ tool that uses the first problem to solve the second, and vice-versa.

‘If we want to translate the Web, we can’t do it with 100 people or 1,000 people,’ he said. ‘We literally need millions. And if we need millions of people, we can’t quite pay them, because there’s millions of them. So then the question was, ‘How do we get them to translate stuff for free?’

His free Duolingo app and website—duolingo.com—invite users to learn one of six languages for free. The gamelike interface is ad-free and encourages users to compete with friends. But here’s the thing: After about 45 minutes of instruction, the program begins asking users to translate random sentences into their new language. Von Ahn plans to sell the sentences to sites that want their material translated on the Web. He expects that half of the service to be up and running later this year.

Crowdsourced with others’ for greater accuracy, the sentences feed von Ahn’s giant effort to translate the Web into Spanish, German, French, Italian and Portuguese – and into English. He plans to add other languages as users indicate they can support the effort. Students’ results, he said, are superior to automated translation software and just shy of professional translators’ efforts.

Launched last June after months in beta testing, Duolingo has about 700,000 active users. Only about one in four lives in the USA. The iPhone app was expected to see its 1 millionth download last Friday.

The massive number of users also means that von Ahn can conduct his own language research. For instance, he wanted to know whether it was more effective to teach Spanish adjectives or adverbs first, so he set up a trial with 50,000 users and found that Team Adjective did better.

Veronique Baloup-Kovalenko, a French and Spanish teacher at Convent of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls’ school in Greenwich, Conn., began using the app with her classes recently and said it’s a good supplement to classroom instruction. Because it allows students to work at their own pace, it makes for good practice. ‘It’s brilliant because everybody is getting something out of it,’ she said. ‘It’s quick, it’s fun and it’s easy to access. They love it because it’s the element of challenge, of competition among themselves.’” (Read more here.)

A really interesting experiment. I wonder if the sense that Duolingo’s users have that they’re doing something “real”—translating the web for others’ use—makes them more motivated and engaged.

It’s a bit like the “teaching to learn” phenomenon—we learn things better ourselves when we teach them to others, in part because we become invested in helping our mentees learn successfully. If you’d like to read more, I wrote about teach-to-learn in this Time.com column.)

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