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!