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Duolingo’s Luis von Ahn believes in the power of language

The CEO of Duolingo talks about the significance of the Indian market with its myriad languages, how knowledge of English can increase your income potential, and improving the popular language-learning app

Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO, Duolingo
Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO, Duolingo (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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There was a moment—rather, a week—sometime in 2016 when Luis von Ahn felt euphoric. During the course of that week, he learnt that Syrian refugees in camps across Europe were using the Duolingo app. Across the Atlantic, so was Microsoft founder Bill Gates—to learn French.

“That juxtaposition made me proud,” says the co-founder of the language learning platform, which has a website and a mobile app. “At the time, Bill Gates was the richest person in the world. This was a case where the same way of learning was being used by billionaires versus people who have little money.” The latter were using it free, like most users.

Duolingo, the company Von Ahn co-founded in 2011, offers 103 courses for 40 distinct languages, with over 25 million people worldwide learning more than one language on the platform. With 45 million users in India, 10 million added in 2021 alone—at the height of the pandemic—this is the company’s fourth largest market. Its significance was emphasised further when Duolingo appointed its first official representative in India in December, country marketing manager Karandeep Singh Kapany.

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The sheer scale of India, its myriad languages, makes it a notable market for Duolingo. Though it’s used currently only by Hindi speakers, Duolingo plans to add more languages, starting with Bengali. It has also discovered, unexpectedly, that India is one of the fastest growing markets for the Korean language, with interest propelled by K-pop and K-dramas.

“The other thing that is interesting about India,” says Von Ahn, who is also the company’s chief executive officer, “is it’s a country where people have packed in a patchwork of English knowledge. A lot of people in India know a little bit of English, just stuff that they picked up from different places.” He adds: “When I was growing up, I always thought of India as India. I now understand that India is more like a congregation of countries, with different languages and services. It’s not one monolithic thing like China.”

It’s morning in New York when Von Ahn logs in on Microsoft Meets. He usually starts his day early, around 5am, checking on what has happened overnight—they have more than 500 employees spread across several countries and time zones, such as China. He scopes all Duolingo metrics from the previous day, exercises for an hour and heads to office, where his schedule is loaded with meetings.

Focused on growth, Duolingo is at present working on a redesign of the home screen (to improve the UI-UX) and is in the process of testing it on new users. It’s also working on a few new products to go beyond language learning, like a math app that will release later this year.

Last year, the company went public, notching up a market cap of nearly $3 billion ( 23,250 crore now). The reason for going public, says Von Ahn, is part of his vision to make this “like a 100-year company, or longer than that”. Most such companies are publicly traded, it’s rare for them to stay private for a long time, he says. “Going public forces you to be a lot more disciplined. Now I think we operate better as a company. Also, at some point, we needed to give our investors returns.”

The beginning

Growing up in Spanish-speaking Guatemala in South America, Von Ahn learnt English at an early age. This helped him move to the US for higher education. “If I had stayed in Guatemala, I probably would have become a low-paid engineer who made $30,000 a year,” says the 43-year-old. “I saw what that (education) could do. I think those were the things that really led me to start Duolingo.”

After he completed a bachelor’s degree in maths from Duke University in 2000 and a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, he just wanted to do “cool technological things”. In 2000, when he was still a student, he co-founded CAPTCHA—short for completely automated public turing test, to tell computers and humans apart—that protects websites from bots. It was an academic project that didn’t make him any money. However, he did sell a tech company, reCAPTCHA, to Google in 2009.

Building an education giant 

That gave him the financial freedom to work on something that would have impact. With $3 million Series A funding, Severin Hacker and he launched Duolingo. Available for use since 2012, it works like any other tutor, assessing how much a user knows and trying to tailor studies accordingly. It has two options: free, and subscription plans that offer an ad-free experience and rewards, among other advantages. The US plan, for instance, is $6.99 per month, with discounts for the 12- month plan and the family plan. There is no subscription plan for India at present.

The process is simple. You sign up and identify the language you want to learn. It starts teaching you basic vocabulary and grammar aided by audio prompts, pictures, etc., before you progress to higher levels. There are quizzes, you can even join a league. The aim is to make learning fun or, in today’s parlance, “gamify” learning— with scores, contests, animation, etc.

“If you know just basic vocabulary in English, then I am going to start teaching you almost from the beginning. If you already know how to use the present tense, I am going to start by teaching you the past tense or something,” Von Ahn says. Depending on how much time you spend on it and your penchant for learning, you can become proficient enough to understand a language and speak comfortably.

He says it’s possible to learn a language well enough to be able to understand shows/movies (without subtitles) or have a good conversation. “What you cannot do with Duolingo is get to the point where you can become a writer or a public speaker in that language,” says Von Ahn, who has learnt Portuguese using the product he created.

There is no limit to the number of languages Duolingo can teach, though having a different script does make it complicated. Since the programme uses computer voices—not humans—there is either no computer voice for some of the smaller languages, or the voice is bad. Among the rare languages they do offer are Hawaiian, Navajo and Scottish Gaelic.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, English dominates the popularity chart: Duolingo’s data shows about 60% of their users learn English. Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese follow, in that order. Von Ahn explains it simply: While English may be considered an imperialistic language, as it is in Guatemala and several other countries, “without ascribing to whether this is good or bad, the truth is English really helps you be a global citizen. In most countries, India included, knowledge of English can significantly increase your income potential.”

While they call themselves a subscription company—roughly 70% of their revenue comes from it—an average of just 6% of their active monthly users pay to subscribe. “We are a mission-driven company. We want it to be the case that somebody who cannot afford to pay us can learn on Duolingo as much as they want. I also think that’s good for business because these 94% users who do not pay have been an amazing marketing engine. They will tell their friends, and maybe one of their friends will pay us. The main way we have grown is by people telling each other.”

He finds this a better way to grow than traditional advertising. The company spends just about $40 million a year on marketing; he is wary because he believes app companies can get addicted to marketing. “The more you spend, the more users you have. It’s expensive for one thing and at some point, you start only working on your marketing, as opposed to working on improving your product.”

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Looking to the future

Around late 2015, Duolingo raised $45 million from Google Capital (now called CapitalG), taking its tally of total investments at the time close to $100 million. They had “no idea how to make money” and one of the persons involved in the deal told Von Ahn: “I invested in you; you have a great product. But you are making no money, so this is the last investment you are going to get from anybody.”

“She literally used the words, you are not going to find a bigger fool than Google,” he remembers. “I mean, Google has kind of infinite money. So I was worried. I didn’t know how we were going to make money but we ended up figuring it out.”

“We could make more money tomorrow if we just doubled the ad load. In the short term, this would be good, our stock price would go up. But in the long term, this would be bad because if we doubled the ad load, we would lose some users.”

Though the company isn’t profitable yet, their results for the last quarter have been encouraging. The future looks bright: With more education models on the way and a scalable base, subscription—and revenue—should grow. Von Ahn himself has been attempting to learn French, supplementing it with an unproven method of learning a language—watching French shows on Netflix. Lately, he has also begun learning Swedish on Duolingo, mainly because his partner is Swedish.

He hopes for a future in which anybody learning something substantial does it using a Duolingo product. “Regardless of whether they can afford it or not, they can get a great education through a Duolingo product,” Von Ahn says. “I would love it if that’s the case.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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