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Teaching Foreign Languages to Bill Gates and School-children in Africa

New information technologies are fundamentally changing our understanding of what education is. In his lecture at HSE, Luis von Ahn, Co-founder of reCAPTCHA and the educational platform Duolingo talked about how computer programmes teach people to interact and create new social elevators.

Using CAPTCHA to digitise books

CAPTCHA is probably the highest profile invention by Luis von Ahn and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. Any regular internet user will have come across this test, designed to differentiate between a real person and a bot, while browsing websites. The practical benefit that CAPTCHA delivers is apparent in economic terms: for example, a well-known ticket sales service for concerts and sports events can use the test to prevent the mass purchase of tickets by speculators. But CAPTCHA’s developers had a quite different use in mind when they developed it – a cultural and educational goal.

Luis von Ahn wanted to know how often people use CAPTCHA. He found that users across the world use it on average 200 million times a day. ‘At first I was really proud, ‘look how important my research is’’ said von Ahn. ‘But then I found it sad, after all, it takes about 10 seconds to complete. So that means that people spend 500,000 hours a day on CAPTCHA, all because of me.’

That’s where the idea of doing something that means people are doing something useful with these 10 seconds came from. For example, helping digitise books. Computers do OK at this, but only to a certain extent. You hit problems when computer programmes have to recognise words from books printed decades ago, when the print quality and condition leaves something to be desired. People, unlike machines, are capable of working out what these blurred words are. So, that’s what millions of users are doing, totally unconsciously, when they complete reCAPTCHA, rather than CAPTCHA. Many websites now ask you to identify two words: one of which the computer recognises and the other – the computer cannot – which is taken from an old book. If users get the first word right, then reCAPTCHA assumes they also get the second word right – especially since such a number of people are completing the same test.

How machines teach people

Luis von Ahn said that education was always his passion, and he wanted to create an educative project. ‘But my views on education are closely tied to my origins, I come from Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in the world,’ von Ahn said. ‘Education is one of the most effective weapons against poverty.’ But then you get into a vicious cycle, education costs money. Rich people can afford to pay for education for themselves and their children, and thus they maintain themselves at that higher level of education and increase their chances of retaining a high income. Poor people don’t have the money for education, they are stuck in low-qualified and low-educated employment, and that means that generation after generation is stuck in poverty.

The Duolingo project launched by Luis von Ahn makes it possible for people to get access, free of charge, to knowledge in the vital area of foreign languages. Knowing a foreign language not only increases your chances of finding a good job, but also raises your social standing. It is estimated that a total of 1.2 billion people across the world are learning foreign languages.

The end goal of this project is on a larger scale: fighting illiteracy. There remain around a billion people across the world who cannot read and write in their native language

Luis von Ahn believes it is particularly important that the Duolingo platform is used by people from diverse segments of society – from Bill Gates, learning French, to schoolchildren in the poorest countries who are learning English. The cultural aspect is also important, expanding the space in which rare languages are used. Irish is a native language for just 92,000 people, but 2 million people are studying it on Duolingo.

Duolingo also helps with cultural integration – for example, the most popular language among users in Sweden is Swedish. This apparent paradox is simple to resolve: these are migrants who are trying to learn the language of the country where they now live.

Duolingo is a continuing experiment. The people who developed this platform are constantly coming up with new ways to ensure that users do not get bored. Duolingo’s developers, who are chiefly computer engineers rather than linguists, also had to resolve methodological issues, such as what order is best when learning a foreign language? Do you start with the articles, numbers, and parts of speech? By offering different users different orders in their courses, and then comparing results, the developers were able to identify the optimal solution.

Speak – you’re on camera!

The overwhelming majority of people (about 85%) studying a foreign language, are embarrassed about speaking it with other people. This fear, not only of making mistakes, but of seeming ridiculous or stupid, is something many people can relate to. Duolingo’s developers offer shy users a new opportunity – to practice their conversation skills with a person who may look at them strangely, but with a computer programme, which will definitely not judge you.

Another trial service that Luis von Ahn’s company is developing is language tests that are cheaper and more accessible than the traditional TOEFL, IELTS and the rest. This service also aims to help people on low incomes or living a long way from certified centres take the usual exams. In order to take a language exam in Duolingo, you just need 50 USD and a computer – you don’t have to go anywhere.

Irish is a native language for just 92,000 people, but 2 million people are studying it on Duolingo

It is true that, for these exams to be held successfully, the developers had to overcome the issue  of identifying users correctly. The answer turned out to be simple: to record the test on a web-camera. This recording of the test, combined with a number of specific questions the user has to answer, could even indicate whether the student is getting any additional assistance.

Duolingo is currently working to get university recognition for their language tests, something that has involved over 100 US universities to date. Their incentive was the additional option offered by Duolingo: users who sit tests can also use the web-cam to record a short outline of events that they find interesting or relevant, or simply share their thoughts – giving the university’s admissions commission the opportunity to learn more about the student than the test results themselves provide, and giving them the chance to see and hear how they speak English.

These language tests, which are relatively cheap for users, are one of Duolingo’s main sources of income but the project has yet to make a profit. The developers plan to offer users new paid-for services, such as a special subscription that gives them an ad-free service, and a number of video services.

Duolingo’s immediate plans include launching courses in the Chinese language. They are also developing a platform to help people in a particular city who are learning languages arrange get-togethers. The project’s goal is more grand: to combat illiteracy. There are around a billion people across the world who cannot read and write in their native language. Can the technology developed for Duolingo help people learn sciences as well as languages?

Luis von Ahn believes that is a very real possibility, for example, for basic geography and mathematics. ‘Unlike languages, not many people study mathematics outside of school,’ Professor von Ahn noted.

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