A trendy new kid on the increasingly crowded block when it comes to online language courses and learning is the innovative and rapidly growing startup Duolingo. There’s no shortage of hype surrounding it, for various reasons, but is it actually any good?

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Duolingo officially launched back in November 2011 but only in private beta at that time and it was not until June 2012 that it opened fully to the public at large. The founder and currently also the CEO is Luis von Ahn who is an associate professor in the CompSci Department at Carnegie Mellon University but perhaps better known as the man behind reCAPTCHA, one variation of those annoying graphical things that make registering on many web sites something of a pain. Google later acquired reCAPTCHA so Luis von Ahn is certainly well connected these days and I imagine that bodes well for the future to Duolingo’s investors.

Speaking of investors, one them is none other than Ashton Kutcher, famous for starring in That 70’s Show and more recently Two and a Half Men. Kutcher is well involved in the tech startup world and has his fingers in many a pie these days.

Duolingo currently offers language courses for English speakers in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and German. However they don’t just cater to english speakers but also offer English courses for speakers of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Future offerings are rumoured to include Chinese and perhaps (hopefully!) others.

Now few would claim that learning a new language is endless fun and games, however Duolingo have actually gamified the learning process – there are levels which you must complete to unlock the next levels for example, to complete a level you must earn points by getting answers right along the way, proving that you have learned and you even get “lives” which you lose when you mess up. You can also compete with other language learners and interact through the usual social mechanisms.

All this gamey goodness is great and even better it is FREE to learn a language with Duolingo, however there’s more to it than just learning a language – the system also employs crowdsourcing (fancy word for getting lots of people working for you for free) to do translations of all sorts of stuff on the web. How effective this is I am not sure, translations could still be wrong or contextually inappropriate even if more than one person has more or less ‘verified’ it – see Wikipedia for example of large scale crowd-sourcing which doesn’t always work although it is still pretty good.

Duolingo certainly seems reasonably good (and improving all the time) and involves innovative features which keep it relatively interesting and useful and which helps keep learners motivated. Recent reports have said that independent scientific research has shown it to be even more effective than traditional college courses. However, while it may be decent for learning vocabulary and useful phrases you still need to get out there and really talk to people to attain a respectable level of conversational fluency. Overall I would say that on its own it is not enough but as part of a comprehensive learning plan it is a useful (and free!) addition, particularly for beginners, but less so for more advanced learners.

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