Duolingo Beta Put To The Test: Can You Learn A Language While Translating The Web?

I watched this TED talk by Luis von Ahn a while ago in order to avoid doing some work.

while his name may not be familiar to everyone, his accomplishments will: he developed reCAPTCHA, a service that uses human beings to help digitize The New York Times’ and Google’s library archives. (It’s worth noting that while you’re focusing on your writing, remember to keep things in perspective. When you read someone else’s essay and have to squint your eyes and turn your head sideways to make out the annoyingly blurry squiggly words, isn’t it making the world a better place? Still, feel free to curse while you.

In this TED talk, von Ahn describes his new endeavour, Duolingo. In a nutshell, Duolingo’s mission is to crowdsource language learning. New language without spending a penny while working through microwork.

Given the ground-breaking nature of this concept, you can imagine my delight when the invitation for the Duolingo Beta was delivered to my home recently. It was a wonderful opportunity to brush up on my rusty Spanish, which I recently put to the test while exploring a notorious Caribbean island – with disappointing results.

A brilliant user interface

Duolingo appears to be clean, friendly, and elegant at first sight. There is no sign of the aggravating and unintentionally amusing user interface that reCAPTCHA has created.

To begin with, the interface offered me a quick walkthrough, introducing fundamental concepts and allowing me to practice translating simple phrases. I had access to suggested translations at all times by hovering over each linguistic particle.

I was then presented with a skill tree, which some gamers may be familiar with but is unusual in the language learning industry.

Three well-known hearts appeared on the top right of the window when I started the first “lesson” (“exercises” would be a better term for what they are in practice). This is an indication of quality: if you lose all three, you must start again.

I was shocked after a few exercises by my first accomplishment. Thank you, the Academy (and my parents), for making this possible.

Then it was time to get down to business (micro)work, such as transcribing the web. The interface altered somewhat at this point. I was told to translate a phrase, which could be played back in audio form and accompanied by a picture to shed light on the idea in its full context.

The actual sentence was “Ilumina la piscina”. I went with a straightforward (in my mind) “Light the pool”. It turns out Duolingo demands precision: two other users provided a better translation (“Illuminate the swimming pool”). I lost one heart. Ouch!

The second sentence fared somewhat better, as my translation was similar to the others.

For the third sentence, I got a “60% agreement,” meaning that one user translated the phrase as I had and another offered a second choice.

After the check, Duolingo asked me to rate the other users’ performances. This is definitely how they check whether their translation is of high quality. It’d be fascinating to find out how many times they must perform that procedure before getting a definitive answer (the industry standard, as far as I know, is seven).

The first goal was accomplished, and it was time to move on. More achievements, points, and unlocks! The game lover in me celebrated.

My verdict

It’s easy to get excited about Duolingo (especially if you don’t go out much). Given that only 0.5% of what needs to be translated today is actually done (because of the expense and other limitations), it has the potential to truly alter the world.

Shouldn’t the translation business as a whole be concerned? I reached out to Jani Penttinen, a professional in the field. “You can’t guarantee quality with Duolingo,” Jani said. “To make it a major threat to professional translation services, I don’t think you could, but it’s a fantastic approach to deliver translations to customers in areas where it isn’t currently feasible due to high costs.”

In my opinion, the interaction between users and the platform is well-designed by von Ahn and his pals, ensuring that the idea works as intended. That is, in and of itself, a significant accomplishment. I’d need to spend more time with Duolingo to determine if it will truly help me learn Spanish, but it’s a lot more fun than that old grammar book. But the most important change has been to my attitude.

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