Learn a language while you translate the web

I was listening to Spark yesterday and heard about Duolingo, a new web project that aims to translate the entire web with volunteers who want to learn a new language. The way it works is that Duolingo presents sentences in the new language and the user tries to translate the sentence into their mother tongue. If you don’t know a word you can mouse over it and a suggestion will pop up. Computers are very good at translating individual words but terrible at putting them together into meaningful sentences, so that is what the human part of this equation contributes. How much you mouse over the words determines the complexity of the sentences you get, so the experience is always tailored to your level of proficiency.

According to creator Luis von Ahn (who also invented ReCaptcha, which helps digitize books), people are actually learning languages on Duolingo as quickly as they would using conventional methods. The system also asks people to vote on the best translations for each sentence, and they say the results are as good as you would get from professional translators.

Since I am interested in learning languages and like to play on the web I am very eager to try Duolingo, but it is still at the private beta stage. All you can do is submit your email address and get on the (reportedly massive) waiting list for an invitation. So far only Spanish, German, and English are available, but they plan to add more languages as they work out the bugs.

At this point Duolingo is entirely free with no ads, and von Ahn wants to provide translations for free at least for non-commercial content. However, Von Ahn has a habit of getting bought out by Google and it’s hard to imagine every web page being translated into every language without Google-sized computing power behind it. But it’s clear that von Ahn is not doing this to make his fortune but to allow the people of the world to understand each other. Perhaps this is the beginning of Web 3.0, where the world wide web will be truly accessible to the whole wide world. I can’t wait to try it and will report back when I do. In the mean time, watch the introductory video and sign up!


6 comments on “Learn a language while you translate the web

  1. Stefanie says:

    Very cool. I've been thinking lately that I'd like to relearn my German so signed up for the opportunity!

  2. Great! I'm tempted to try German as well as Spanish but I'll take it one step at a time. I'm also interested in polishing my French and trying Mandarin, languages they are planning to add next year. If Duolingo flies it could keep me very busy in future!

  3. Tom says:

    I signed up for French. We'll see how it goes!

  4. Great! I've been looking at tweets from people who are already using it and they are amazed by how quickly they pick up the language and how addictive it is. Unfortunately the waiting list is something like 200,000 people so it might be a while before everyone can get in. I can't wait!

  5. Susan says:

    Sylvia, thanks so much with sharing this information! I've signed up to learn Spanish, which I've wanted to do because there's a significant Spanish-speaking population in this part of the state.

    It's a start to learn another language; learning to converse in that language is also needed. I wonder if/how Duolingo will do that. Susan

  6. Hi Susan, Duolingo does include listening and speaking practice, but for real conversations you might try something like Livemocha, which enables language learners to chat via webcam. I believe they match native speakers who want to learn each other's language. This is a great time to learn a language!

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