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Breaking down language barriers

The Greek philosopher Socrates imparted that true wisdom comes when we realize how little we understand about life, about ourselves, and about the world around us. Knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing—only then can we truly be open to learning.

It may sound a bit existential, but these millennia-old words still ring true today. And they’re more practical than they may seem at first glance. With technology smartening up everything from our phones to our wallets and homes, the potential for true learning has never been so wide. In the last generation, we’ve seen technology help break down cultural and political barriers, and create the flattest, most global population that’s ever existed. Now the only thing that seems to be keeping people apart is words—differing languages. But, what if that barrier was removed? How much greater could our collective progress be? New innovations are already at work, crumbling the barrier that is language.

Duolingo is one such company leading the pack. The free website and mobile app gamifies language learning (English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Dutch, and Turkish). And, it’s getting huge results. Founded in 2009 by entrepreneur Luis von Ahn, the company boasts a user base of 30 million, and impressive stats that quantify the value of online learning. An independent study by the the City University of New York found that skills gained from 34 hours of Duolingo equaled one U.S. college semester of language courses. The service is as simple as picking a language you’re interested in, then taking minutes-long lessons to sharpen vocabulary and comprehension, and translate documents.

“The sad truth is that people without resources do not have access to high quality education, and therefore have a very low chance of really improving their quality of life, or providing a better future for their kids,” von Ahn explains.

Growing up in the poor Central American nation of Guatemala, von Ahn knows firsthand the hurdles. And that’s why he’s so passionate about making a difference, and creating a free tool to help others like himself better their lives.

“I wanted to offer education of the highest quality to everyone, but in a sustainable manner. I picked language learning because acquiring a new language can actually change someone’s life opportunities immediately, qualifying them for school or job opportunities they would otherwise not be able to attain.”

There’s a huge market for this service. Over half of the web is written in English, but only about 27 percent of the population are native English speakers. This means two things:

  1. Duolingo is a tool to help raise the masses’ proficiency in many languages.
  2. Duolingo offers the services as a vital new source for companies looking to translate their websites and content to create greater access to information across the web. Big name brands are already signing up.

Furthering this value-exchange, and ensuring no online action goes to waste, Duolingo invites students to translate documents for major companies as they learn. It’s a win-win-win for all parties involved.

Speaking a foreign language can help in the classroom, the boardroom, and in the ever globalized streets and businesses of the 21st century. It is a world where it’s becoming harder and harder for even the college-educated to find work, fluency beyond a mother tongue is a tremendous asset and advantage over competition. von Ahn hopes to expand his service into Japan, China, and Korea, and eventually grow Duolingo to include mathematics.

According to the U.S. Committee on Economic Development, America needs “employees with knowledge of foreign languages and cultures to market products to customers around the globe, and to work effectively with foreign employees and partners in other countries.” Unfortunately, the U.S. educational system fails to prepare students for this need—only 14 percent of students consider themselves bilingual, compared to 80 percent of European students. The field is ripe for disruption, and for companies like Duolingo to lead the charge.