How to teach Spanish for free without exploiting people

Recently I began to think about learning a new language, but couldn’t imagine going to weekly classes because they’re expensive and involve a big time commitment. In the past I’ve tried to teach myself a new language at home using online materials, but the lack of clear structure and visible progress eventually bored me and I gave up.

A trip to Mexico City last month prompted me to give Duolingo a try. I wanted to pick up just enough Spanish to get by while ordering food, but Duolingo made learning Spanish so easy to fit into my life that I’m still using it four weeks later.

Duolingo breaks up the material into short lessons which ask you to pair words in two languages, write down what you hear, translate sentences in both directions and say phrases out loud. The lessons are so short that I can complete one or two while queueing in a shop, travelling on the tube or lifting weights. It’s become my favourite thing to do with my phone when temporarily unoccupied. Suddenly, learning a language to a high degree of fluency seems possible and doesn’t require giving up any of my other hobbies.

I was curious about Duolingo’s business model. The lessons are free and there are many languages to choose from. Someone has to create all that content and maintain the software. But there are no in-app purchases, no other extras to pay for, and no ads. My instinct was that Duolingo must be burning through venture capital money while figuring out a business model, or trying to grow fast to sell my data to the highest bidder.

I was wrong. Duolingo is a profit-making company which sells translations to big organisations. The translations are crowdsourced from people who are practising the languages they’re learning. Since Duolingo has lots of students, the quality of the crowdsourced translations is very high, and obviously valuable to its customers.

This is a way of making profit that creates value for everyone involved. The learners get to improve their skills using real-world material, and for free. The clients get quality translations. Duolingo gets to profit financially while lowering the barrier to language education. You should watch this talk by one of the founders, Luis von Ahn, in which he explains the motivations behind the project.

I admit, I was surprised to discover that Duolingo has a non-exploitative business model. Selling users’ privacy has become so normalised in tech that other possible revenue sources rarely enter anyone’s imagination. Clearly, a different approach is possible.