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September 17, 2014
Luis von Ahn describes the model for the free language-learning platform, Duolingo. The idea, he says, goes back to his childhood, where he imagined a model for a gymnasium that sustained itself by reselling people-produced energy. Von Ahn is the CEO and Co-founder of Duolingo.
Transcript: The problem with language education, there's about 1.2 billion people in the world learning a foreign language. It's one of the most common things that people learn in the world, everywhere in the world except maybe for the U.S., it's not that common in the U.S., but everywhere else it's about 1.2 billion people learning a foreign language. Now, if you look at it more deeply it turns out about 800 million of them satisfy three properties. The first one is they're learning English. The second one is that they are doing so in order to get a better job or a job at all, and the third one is that they are of low socioeconomic condition. So basically most people learning a foreign language are poor people learning English to make more money or to make some money.
Now, the kind of ironic thing is that usually the way there are to learn languages, and particularly to learn English, costs a lot of money. So for example, in the U.S. there's Rosetta Stone, which is $500-$1,000, in Latin America there's a program called Open English, which is about $1,000. So it's this ironic thing that most of the people that need to learn a language are poor people that are doing it so that they can get money but it requires quite a bit of money to do so. Which is why with Duolingo we decided to make a completely free way to learn a language. And that's the whole premise of Duolingo. When we started we thought we have to make a way to learn a language but it has to be 100 percent free.
When we started Duolingo it was not just me, it was me and my co-founder whose name is Severin Hacker who is very funny because his last name is Hacker. When we started we knew we wanted to do a free way to learn languages. This is what we wanted to do. It's easy to say that it's free, the problem is when something is free you got to find a way to finance it and to make it sustainable. So the question really became is how do we teach languages for free but such that we can actually finance the whole thing? The solution to this came from many of my previous projects have had this very similar idea. And it's an idea that can be traced back to an idea that I had when I was a kid. It was a terrible idea but at the time I thought it was an amazing idea. And it was that I wanted to have a gym where it was free to go to the gym. It's a free gym, but all the exercise equipment was connected to the power grid and people when they went there as they exercise they would generate electricity that the gym would sell to the power grid. So that's why it was free. We wouldn't charge people but we would make money by selling electricity to the electric company.
It turns out this is a bad idea because it turns out humans are actually not very good at making electricity. But I thought it was a good idea at the time. Also there's another reason why it's a bad idea. Turns out with gym economics actually most of the money is made from people not showing up, whereas in this case we really needed people to show up because we needed to generate the electricity. [TRANSCRIPT TRUNCATED]
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Access for Everyone: A Model for Free Online Learning, with Duolingo's Luis von Ahn