Duolingo might be the world’s largest language education platform with over 110 million users globally, but it took them some time to figure out what works for India. However, the learnings have been good enough for founder Luis von Ahn to bet big on India, and launch the company’s first dedicated team for any country.
“Our new team of four will make the app work for India. It is the first such team. We think the market is very big here and learning English is a big deal,” explains von Ahn, the creator of CAPTCHA / reCAPTCHA which he sold to Google when he was still in his twenties. In the month or so that the Duoling started focusing on India and Indian users they realised the need for some changes and released a new version of the app tailored for the country. The team will be in India this week to do more user studies.
Among the learnings for the company have been the need to make the apps lighter and less dependent on data. “We have apps in so many countries that we did not pay attention to individual countries. So we hadn’t realised how difficult it is to type in Hindi. This is when we realised that smartphone users in India, even those who don’t know the language, have their phones set to English,” adds von Ahn, who also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and has won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award.
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The app no longer requires Hindi typing and even accepts Romanisation. Also, people have the option of responding with options that need to be tapped, removing the need to type. “We are going to be make more changes. The idea is to do everything needed to make the app successful here. We will be adding other large Indian languages soon,” he adds.
The folks at Duolingo also noticed that there was strangely more people learning French and Spanish among the 1.5 million users they have out of India. That was when they realised that since most Indians had their phones set to English default, they were not being shown the option to learn English rightaway.
“There is a large number of people who are very recent smartphone users. So there are things they don’t realise or understand as well as an avid smartphone user. So we are using stuff like wiggling tiles to make the action easier,” says von Ahn.
Duolingo has also started offering certificates for those who complete their English tests at just $20, which is a fraction of tests like TOEFL. The test is already being accepted my many universities in the US and even some companies.
According to von Ahn, a study by the City University of New York found that 34 hours on the app is equivalent to a semester in the university and it takes an average user about 150 hours to reach intermediate level. He hopes that with success and increased adoption in India, the app will be able to double its users.