As we know, countries all over the world are now joining the web in mass numbers. While this is good for access to diversity of content and perspective, it lends itself to the difficult problem of language. As it stands, over half of the content on the web is in English. This leaves only a minimal amount of content to split among a dozen other languages. Conversely, English speaking users are left out of the new content added by foreign language users. The attempt to solve this language problem on the web is at the forefront of businesses, web developers and translation experts alike.
One new company believes they have found a way to help solve this issue, by combining education with translation. Founding their product on the principle that there are over one billion people worldwide that are learning a foreign language, with millions doing so using computer programs, Duolingo allows people to learn a foreign language while simultaneously translating web content.
Luis von Anh, the founder of CAPTCHA and now Duolingo, explains, “With Duolingo, our goal is to encourage people, like you and me, to translate the web into their native languages. Now, with billions and billions of pages on the web, this can’t be done with just a few volunteers, nor can we afford to pay professional translators. When Severin Hacker and I started Duolingo, we realized we needed a way to entice millions of people to help translate the web. However, coordinating millions of contributors to translate language presents two major hurdles. First, finding enough people who are bilingual enough to help with translation is difficult. Second, motivating them to do it for free makes this next to impossible. The idea behind Duolingo is to kill two birds with one stone by solving both of these problems simultaneously. We accomplish this by transforming language translation into something that anyone can do — not just bilinguals — and that millions of people want to do: learning a foreign language.”
In Duolingo, users are given exercises that are specifically geared towards teaching them every aspect of the language they are learning. Some of the sentences they are given to translate come from real websites. By having multiple students translate the particular sentence, and then choosing the best one, Duolingo hopes to produce translations that are accurate and grammatically correct.
Since users are providing a valuable service in exchange for the use of the language-learning software, there is no fee to use Duolingo. As Luis von Anh states, “Duolingo entails a new business model that allows anyone online, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to education.” The majority of other language-learning software retails for around $500, which limits the users to those affluent enough to afford it. Duolingo now allows everyone a chance to learn and educate themselves, while providing a useful service at the same time.
While this business model seems like a great opportunity, I am still somewhat skeptical about the accuracy of the translated text that is produced. After all, the translations that are produced are still coming from beginning to novice translators, and not professionals. Also, no details are given that explain how the “best translation is selected”. With over a billion pages of content on the web, it doesn’t seem possible that there will be human linguists that are pouring over the submitted translations, and then choosing the best one. Likewise, if it is a machine or program that chooses the best translation, the end result is no more accurate than a machine translator such as Google Translate or Bing Translator providing the translation from the beginning. Either case, it would make the entire process mute.
Time will tell how well Duolingo stands up to the challenge of web translation. In the meantime, there is still no substitute for professional, accurate, translation services.