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TMCNet:  CMU spinoff wins Apple's App of the Year [The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]

[December 17, 2013]

CMU spinoff wins Apple's App of the Year [The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]

(Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 17--A Carnegie Mellon University spinoff, Duolingo, won Apple's App of the Year for its language-learning program, the technology giant announced on Tuesday.

The honor is given a week after Google selected Duolingo as one of its top five applications for the Android operating system, said Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who co-founded Duolingo with his doctoral student, Severin Hacker.

"Normally, the types of apps they pick are games, and normally they're made in Silicon Valley. This is an education app, and it's made in Pittsburgh," von Ahn said.

Just two years after the free application was developed, 16 million people have used it to learn English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, von Ahn said. Forty percent of those used the Android app, 38 percent used the Apple app for iPhones and iPads, and 22 percent used the website.

Duolingo supports itself by selling translations. CNN is its main client, von Ahn said. Language students using the application translate stories provided by CNN or, for example, a menu for a restaurant that wants to broaden its clientele.

The large number of people working on the translations help ensure accuracy, he said. The corporate purchases keep the app free, von Ahn said.

"In some ways, CNN is providing free language education," von Ahn said.

The same crowd-sourcing approach could help Duolingo's cofounders expand their business and the field of language study.

Users help to create other language courses that will be made available through Duolingo, von Ahn said. He expects to increase the number of languages offered by Duolingo from six to 50 by next year.

On the education side, the company's millions of users allow Duolingo to optimize the way it teaches language. When von Ahn and Hacker were starting the company, they had trouble getting answers to basic questions, such as whether they should teach adjectives or adverbs first, von Ahn said.

"Nobody has really hard data about it," von Ahn said.

So they taught it both ways, teaching adverbs first for half of their users and adjectives first to the other half. Whichever half learns more quickly, that's the version they switch to. These days, they're getting about 50,000 new users every 12 hours, so the results come in far more quickly than traditional academic studies.

"We're probably going to make (the data) available at some point" for language researchers, von Ahn said.

The Shadyside-based company employs 32 people, von Ahn said.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or

___ (c)2013 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Visit The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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