A First For Africa: Swahili Added To Free US Language App With 150M Users

By Staff Published: March 5, 2017, 12:52 pm
Swahili added to free US language appPhoto: Youtube

A free, mobile phone-based language-learning platform with more than 150 million users worldwide is adding an African language to its 68-course lineup for the first time.

Duolingo, the U.S.-based app, described by Time.com as addictive and video-game-like, was co-developed five years ago by Luis Von Ahn, a Guatemalan-American entrepreneur and professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

Von Ahn founded reCAPTCHA, which was sold to Google in 2009. It’s that test of squiggly letters most website forms use to make sure you are a human, not a computer.

This allowed von Ahn to pursue Duolingo, his passion project. Language learning wasn’t his goal, he told Time. He was interested in improving education so that people of all social classes could have better opportunities.

From Time.com. Story by Aryn Baker.

Luis Von Ahn’s idea to take on the Rosetta Stones, Berlitzs and Pimsleurs of the world with an addictive, video-game-like app is changing how we think about learning languages.

And now, for the first time, Duolingo is adding an African language to its 68-course lineup: Swahili, the lingua franca of eastern Africa.

“We started looking around and realized that we are teaching almost every European language you can think of, but we had no African languages,” says Van Ahn.

Duolingo has more than 150 million users around the world; in the U.S., where the company is based, there are more people learning languages on Duolingo than there are in the entire U.S. public school system.

An independent study conducted by the City University of New York has shown that 34 hours on Duolingo are equivalent to a university semester of language classes. And all the classes, whether you are a Spanish speaker learning English, or an English speaker learning Welsh (or Italian, Vietnamese, Klingon or a variety of other languages) are absolutely free.

Free language courses are not exactly profitable, but that’s not the point, says Von Ahn.

“There are 1.2 billion people learning a foreign language,” says Van Ahn, who was born in Guatemala. “Two thirds of them are learning English, either to get a job or to go to school so they can get a job. So what most of them are really doing is trying to get out of poverty.”

The irony, he says, is that the average cost of learning a language, either through classes or a computer-based language program like Rosetta Stone, will cost at least $1,000 to get to fluency. “So we decided to do languages, for free.”

So far, the Swahili course is for English speakers who want to learn the language spoken predominantly in Kenya, Tanzania and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But once it launches (planned launch was March 3) programmers will be able to work on reverse-translating the courses so that Swahili speakers can learn English, opening up opportunities for a wide swath of East Africa.

The day before launch, Von Ahn takes the first lesson of the Swahili course through a trial run. He hovers his cursor over a phrase. “Wewe ni Mtanzania,” he reads. “Does this mean ‘we are Tanzanian?’” He types a tentative translation into the text box. It blinks red. “Oh, no, it means you. You are Tanzanian.”

Von Ahn quickly gets into the rhythm, reading, typing, speaking and laughing. When his first missed question comes up again, he goes into app tester mode, and tries typing with a Southern U.S. accent: “Hey, let’s see if ‘y’all’ works. ‘Y’all are Tanzanian,’” he types. The screen flashes green. “Hey, it accepted it. That’s pretty funny.” He ends the first lesson with only one mistake. “That was easy,” he grins, as he starts another.

When Duolingo first started with French, Spanish, English for Spanish speakers and German, the idea was to bring in a small team of linguists for each language to develop the course.

But demands started pouring in for other languages, and the team quickly realized that it would be impossible to replicate the model. “Where are we going to find three Swahili speakers in Pittsburgh?” Von Ahn asks. (Duolingo is based at Carnegie Mellon in Pennsylvania). “I am sure they exist, but they are very hard to find.”

Instead, Duolingo decided to tap its rapidly growing language community for volunteers. Von Ahn and his team adapted the app’s machine-learning program so that it could take a native speaker’s language skills and turn them into bite-size lessons for a digital classroom.

On average, the volunteers work in teams of three for 15-20 hours a week to come up with about 20,000 short sentences and their translations. Then more volunteers are brought in to fine-tune the testing phase.

The Swahili team, pulled from the U.S.’ Peace Corps language-training program in Tanzania, took nearly a year to complete the testing, says Branden Ryan, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Coordinator for the Tanzania Peace Corps program, and one of the founding members of the Swahili team.

“It was a lot of hours, yes, but it was a labor of love,” he says, speaking by telephone from Tanzania.

To Ryan, it was an honor to work on Duolingo’s first indigenous African language program. He says it is just the beginning. “There is a lot of interest in learning these indigenous African languages — Twi, Zulu, Xhosa — Hopefully this will pave the way for other people to contribute what they know.”

Von Ahn pulls up a map of all the most popular languages studied on Duolingo per country. So far English and French dominate in Africa—logical considering the colonial ties to England, France and Belgium.

Then he scrolls up to Europe. “This is the weird one,” he says, pointing to Sweden, which is colored pink, for Swedish. “So the most commonly learned language in Sweden is Swedish. And it is actually Swedish from Arabic. It’s refugees.”

Duolingo’s Arabic-to-other-languages programs are booming in Europe, thanks to the influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. “Fascinating, isn’t it?” Von Ahn asks. “I never would have expected it.”

Read more at Time.com.

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