Language Translator Startup Duolingo Gets Funding From TV Star
June 20, 2012

Language Translator Startup Duolingo Gets Funding From TV Star

Peter Suciu for

While he only plays a billionaire who made his fortune as a savvy tech visionary, actor Ashton Kutcher could be helping computer scientists Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker actually become dotcom successes. Kutcher, who replaced actor Charlie Sheen in the hit CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men,” where he plays a successful software programmer who sold his company to Microsoft for a billion dollars, has made an independent investment in Duolingo, a language translation website created by von Ahn and Hacker.

The pair have received a total of $3.3 million in funding from Kutcher along with New York-based Union Square Ventures, which has previously invested in such high-rising technology ventures such as Foursquare, Twitter, Tumblr and Zynga.

And while there is no shortage of translation tools online, including several named Babelfish — which all seemingly take their respective name from a fictional species of fish that can essentially perform instant translations by sticking the fish in one´s ear — Duolingo isn´t just a translator, but a free language educational website that relies heavily on crowd-sourced online translation.

The service, which was first announced during a TED talk in late 2011 and has been in a period of private beta, became public on Tuesday.

“Duolingo leverages the brain power of millions of people who are currently learning a new language to help translate the web,” said Luis von Ahn, who is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and is co-founder of Duolingo, in a statement. “So much of the web is partitioned off by language barriers. With more than a billion people on the planet learning a new language, I knew this was the ultimate opportunity to not only provide accessible education resources, but also make the internet a truly world wide web.”

This is also not von Ahn´s first venture online. He had previously developed CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA — the technology that requires verification of characters in a distorted image to ensure that a human is actually filling out a web-based form. Bots are typically unable to read the slightly distorted images correctly.

Duolingo could also possibly help for understanding and even learning a foreign tongue much as CAPTCHA has helped reel in unwanted spam through Internet-based forms.

The project requires user participation to work, and on the language-learning side can teach new words, phrases and even some grammar at a pace that is suitable for new learners. As users learn the language and develop skills, they can even try their hand at actual translations, which are pulled from websites in that language. Other users can then vote on which translation is most accurate, and those with the best results will be published to help more speakers read the translations.

Most of the other online translation tools, including the various Babelfish as well as Google Translate require machines to do the translating. Critics contend that while this can capture the essence of a piece of text, it can create some rather muddle passages. However, Google also relies on vast amounts of data, and feeds its engines with translated text from United Nations proceedings to train its machines.

Whether humans voting on translations will have better results will of course need to be seen, but it is likely humans will have more naturally sounding passages compared to those determined by a machine. And maybe Duolingo could even be used to translate sitcoms into other languages — comedy is a universal language after all!

Duolingo is now available and free to use in German, Spanish and English (for Spanish speakers) while French is still in beta. Or as they say in French, “Le français est encore en version beta.”