Duolingo was part of a free education wave that hit the internet in the early 2010s, as entrepreneurs used the tools of the web and mobile to open up entrenched institutions.
Luis von Ahn, who already had success selling two businesses to Google in his 20s, saw an opportunity to turn the language learning model on its head. Instead of having users pay-per-hour or subscribe, Duolingo would be free to all, enabling people from all backgrounds to learn a new language.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2014, Ahn said: “There are 1.2 billion people learning a foreign language and two thirds of those people are learning English so they can get a better job and earn more. The problem is that they don’t have equity and most language courses cost a lot of money.”
Duolingo was a hit even before its official launch. In November 2011, the team launched a private beta and within a month 300,000 people had signed up on a waitlist. Within a year of launch, over 10 million people had downloaded the app, with five million active users.
Instead of building a classroom-style product in an app, Duolingo took cues from the world of gaming to enhance the experience and keep users engaged. Users can compete against friends and random people by completing courses, and receive rewards for streaks.
Duolingo also separated itself from other language learning services by using data to its advantage. It regularly runs tests to find an optimal way to design a course, testing users on how quickly they learn part of the language and changing the formula to smooth the learning curve.
In the past few years, Duolingo has embedded artificial intelligence into the app, to analyze mistakes and slightly alter the course to fit user requirements. It also aims to use the AI to “humanise” the experience, although its bot feature has recently been phased out, after failing to garner much attention.
Tinycards, a companion flashcards app, has also been axed this year. In a forum post, Duolingo said it is moving all resources to the main experience, so we may see Tinycards integrated in some other way in the future.
As Duolingo started to grow, users asked for more obscure and fictional languages to be added. Ahn used his experience as one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing to launch Incubators, which pull together linguists, native speakers and book readers to design a fully optimized course.
These incubators are responsible for several courses Duolingo now offers, including Welsh, Catalan, Latin and fictional languages from Star Trek and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
As part of Ahn’s commitment to Duolingo being more than a game, it offers English language certification for $20, much lower than the $250 it can cost in India, China and other countries. Users are able to take the test on Duolingo and results are sent back in 48 hours.
Duolingo has been criticised for its lack of depth, as people who complete a course will only reach an A2 CEFR level, which is considered basic understanding of the language. The company said in its 2020 update that it aims to add more B1 and B2 level content, so at the end of a course users should be able to contribute to a conversation without any assistance.
It has already added stories, in which the user follows a conversation between two people and is asked questions throughout. More of this content, alongside podcasts, freeform writing and audio lessons are expected to launch in the next year.
We have collected data and statistics on Duolingo users, revenue and course availability. Read on below to find out more.
|Date launched||19 June 2012|
|People||Luis von Ahn (CEO), Severin Hacker (CTO)|
|Available on||iOS, Android, web|
Duolingo Active Users
Note: *Estimated from statement on breaking even with $500,000 monthly costs ** Total bookings, revenue may be lower
Duolingo Total Raised
Duolingo Users By Language
Note: This account for all users, many are not active
Duolingo Languages Available
Duolingo other key stats
- English for Spanish speakers is the most popular course, followed by Spanish for English speakers (Duolingo)
- Five of the top 10 most popular courses are learning English (Duolingo)
- Duolingo saw a 108 percent increase in new sign-ups from March 9 to March 30 (Business Insider)
- Less than three percent of Duolingo users subscribe to its premium offering (BBC)
- Duolingo became a “unicorn startup” in 2019, when it was valued at $1.5 billion (Business of Apps)
- In 2018, Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn said the company was on track to IPO “in a few years”, but hasn’t updated since (Bloomberg)
- More people are learning Irish on the app than native speakers (Duolingo)
- In Sweden, the most popular Duolingo course is Swedish, due to Sweden’s large refugees population increase in the past five years (Duolingo)
- Over seven billion exercises are completed on Duolingo each month (Duolingo)
- Duolingo does not publish the percentage of course completions, however the amount of people who have received a golden owl is below 0.1% for every course (Duolingo forum)
- The average person would need to spend 34 hours on Duolingo to cover one college semester of learning (NY City University), more than Babbel but less than Rosetta Stone
- Over one million people have completed the High Valyrian course, a made-up language by George R. R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire (Duolingo)
- Duolingo has over 500 employees, many of which are linguists designing new programmes
- Over 100,000 schoolteachers use Duolingo in foreign language classes