Translating the web, and free language training

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“How can we get 100 million people translating the web into every major language for free?”

Does this sound like a crazy question? I thought so initially, and I still have a few caveats, but I’m very impressed by the outrageous ambition of the ‘duolingo‘ initiative that follows …


The video above is a segment of a TEDx talk, which Luis von Ahn gave in April 2011 (Pittsburgh, PA), in which he also talked about the ‘Captcha’ system that he co-developed to protect databases from spam and other unwanted computer generated access (the full talk is well worth watching – see here – but doesn’t all relate to language translation, the focus of this blog post).

The ideas raised in the video (‘duolingo’, as well as ‘ReCaptcha’ reflect so many of the great things I’ve referred to in past posts:

I truly think this has potential to be fantastic. Nevertheless, a few possible issues/limitations with the ‘free language training’:

  1. Lack of context? (not seeing the whole ‘article’ or having knowledge behind the topic?)
  2. Training people to ‘translate’ not to ‘learn’? (ie, more like formal, classical language education, instead of training people to learn a language the way a child does, which is what Rosetta Stone attempts to do [Luis von Ahn even cheekily knocks Rosetta Stone’s pricing model, in his talk!])
  3. [Currently] only addresses reading and writing (typing) skills, not audible or oral skills
  4. Lack of structured training program? [I have to caveat this last one, as duolingo might yet build a comprehensive training program around its translation concept …]

These relatively minor drawbacks are massively outweighed by the fact that access to the language training will be made available for ‘free’, and if nothing else, means duolingo represents a fantastic opportunity to start learning a language. It is an incredibly compelling concept for many people, who have time, and the desire to learn, but perhaps not the funds to do so through existing formal learning options. This effectively puts duolingo in a similar bracket to Kahn Academy and other great online learning platforms.

And what will a ‘translated web’ bring us?

Well, a lot more web pages, and even greater needs to better search, and filter the web (but those skills, and corresponding tools, will grow too) – but it will also bring us access to pages created originally in different languages, often out of different cultures to our own, and often therefore based on a completely different way of thinking to our own … and from that we will have massive increases in heterogeneous creativity, and new levels of collaborative problem solving and invention.

That, to me, is something to be truly excited about. And the best bit? These sort of creative uses of the internet are still only the tip of the Iceberg – I think we can be optimistic there is lots more to come.


This post represents a return to the topic of languages, and translation – a topic that I last posted about almost a year ago, but one which I have nevertheless returned to somewhat frequently. For my other posts on language translation, see the following (in reverse chronological order):

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