February 11, 2024

Today's Topics

Hello – or perhaps we should say bonjour, hola, 你好, or guten tag – as today we examine Duolingo, the company that’s turned learning a language into a global tech phenomenon. Whether you’re a user getting constantly pecked by its owl mascot Duo, you’ve got a friend who won’t stop squawking about their months-long streak, or this intro reads like a foreign language to you, join us as we explore the rise of the world’s largest language-learning platform.

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Baby bird

If you’ve ever been annoyed at having to prove you’re not a robot on a website, and you’ve been irritated by a Duolingo notification to get back to your lessons, you can direct your frustrations toward Luis von Ahn, a Guatemalan entrepreneur behind both. Having sold his online authentication software idea reCAPTCHA to Google for “somewhere between $10m and $100m” in 2009, von Ahn teamed up with one of his PhD students, the aptly-named Severin Hacker, to take on the world of education. Deciding they wanted to make language learning affordable, the pair founded Duolingo in 2011, drumming up $3.3m in funding from investors such as Tim Ferriss and Ashton Kutcher.

The platform didn’t launch to the public until June 2012, but ever since the app has soared in popularity, becoming the center of the modern language-learning universe. By leaning into bite-sized lessons, users are hooked in their millions into starting what is otherwise a daunting prospect: learning to speak, write, and maybe even think, in another language.

Saying the right words

After its launch, Duolingo picked up traction quickly, nudging towards the top end of the highly-competitive education charts on app stores. By 2014, the company closed a $20 million Series C round, having picked up 25 million registered users. Fast forward a decade, and those milestones look almost petite, with registered users growing to over 500 million by the end of 2020, when we all had newfound time to pursue long-postponed goals for self-betterment.

But, even more impressive, perhaps, is the share of ‘Lingo heads who use the app regularly, with 83 million people actively choosing to reckon with reflexive verbs at least once a month, and more than 24 million doing the same every day, per the company’s latest figures. So, how did Duolingo win in a space that’s so competitive? They made learning fun… and addictive.

Word games

A huge part of Duolingo’s success is in good old-fashioned entertainment, or — as critics see it — the gamification of the language-learning process.

The company has made no secret of its use of fun to liven up its educational methods, incorporating numerous game mechanics and tactics into the app. As users learn, they are rewarded with experience (XP) points, they can win “gems”, and they need to keep hold of their “hearts” in order to keep playing… all features that could be straight out of a video game. And then of course there’s the streak — arguably Duolingo’s most effective psychological hook — which keeps people coming back to the app day after day, in order to keep their streak alive, with pushy notifications to tell you if you’ve forgotten to log in.

Those mechanics are core to what makes Duolingo so successful, but they’ve also positioned the company for criticism from those who say that they oversimplify the language-learning process, favoring lessons that optimize for in-app engagement over what might be most helpful in real world situations.

Weird is working

The company has also leaned into what has been described as “unhinged” marketing on TikTok. Unlike so many brands that post polished marketing material, Duolingo’s TikTok is meme-heavy… and often just straight up weird.

Videos have included the company's legal team trying to catch the owl mascot to stop it from posting online, obsessions with celebrities (notably Dua Lipa) and non-stop nonsensical memes. That approach has set Duolingo apart, growing to nearly 10 million followers, as people follow along to see the content that they presumably can’t quite believe is coming from an official brand channel. The company is also planning a 5-second local Super Bowl ad, which executives at the company say will be “quite stunting”.

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Large language model(s)

Though Duolingo has amassed a userbase that outweighs the populations of many of the nations whose languages it teaches, converting that army of linguaphiles into a sustainable business has been difficult, especially given the founders’ initial budget-friendly mission. Duolingo has, however, managed to make it work as the company’s pure scale has given it the levers to run one of the most effective freemium models in the industry.

That model — giving all users access to a certain portion of the app’s features, whilst ringfencing others for paying subscribers only — has worked. Since the pandemic, Duolingo’s growth has gone into overdrive, as sales hit $137.6 million in its latest quarter, with more than 75% of that figure from subscriptions to the platform’s Super Duolingo service and its newer, more derivatively-named Max.

Duolingo now counts some 5.8 million paid subscribers, helping the app to become the top-grossing in education on the Google Play store and the Apple equivalent, as users seem keener than ever to upgrade and explore additional features like ad-free courses, extended playing time in the built-in games and quizzes, and enhanced AI content in the case of Duolingo Max too.

The company also hasn’t been able to resist the allure of advertising, raking in nearly $12m from ad deals in its latest quarter, more than it received for provisions of the Duolingo English Test — a proficiency exam that’s now accepted by over 5,000 universities around the world.

Deepfake conversations

For better or worse, Duolingo has cracked the code of mainstream language-learning, optimizing for the way that many people want to learn, with nudges, games and points to tell them that they’re progressing. But, just as that process has been honed to cold calculated perfection, AI has emerged onto the scene, with chatbots promising to turn the entire industry on its head.

That could usher in a new era of next-level immersion for language-learners, as users take their newfound vocabulary into conversations with chatbots that feel real… even if they’re not. That might be good for users, but employees have already lost out, with Duolingo laying off 10% of its contractors in January, citing AI.

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