As cross-dressing sensation Conchita Wurst belted out her Eurovision Song Contest-winning tune across a room filled with Europe’s hottest tech start-ups, I knew it could only mean one thing: the Europas annual awards evening had officially begun. From Berlin came Babbel, who have become one of the world’s leading language learning platforms. Used in 190 countries, with over 25 million app downloads to date, they swept to victory in the education category in exuberant style. However Busuu, Babbel’s nearest rival both in market and geography, reached a staggering 50m users this year, proving that Europe has truly emerged as the home of social language learning.
Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera -straight talk on edtech.
Way back in the days, in August 2009 to be precise, I hosted a webinar series called the E-Teachers Conference. Around that time crowdsourcing became quite a popular topic among education startup people, especially in the language learning space. The reasoning behind that trend essentially was: if Wikipedia can do it, so can we.
Most notably Livemocha, which used to be the leader of the pack at that time, crowdsourced nearly all of its freely accessible language courses from its global community. While this enabled Livemocha to add new language options at a rapid pace, it also showed the flaws of such an approach: the localizations were mediocre at best.
This column was first published in EducationInvestor Volume 6, Issue 3 April 2014.
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When it comes to language, Europe is in a unique position. In a small geographical area, connected by a common market and to some extent common culture, we have access to nearly all the world’s most important languages: English, of course, but German, Spanish, Portuguese and French all play major roles in global trade, too. And the European Commission is keen to get people learning: a year ago, it announced the lofty goal of making every European speak at least three languages, calling this multilingualism strategy “mother tongue plus two”.
“The acquisition of Tell Me More is an exciting way to close out what has been a transformative year for Rosetta Stone.” Steve Swad, President and CEO of Rosetta Stone
Indeed. It seems that this year ends with a bang for the language learning market as Rosetta Stone announced the acquisition of its French competitor Tell Me More for $28 million.
Yesterday Duolingo released a new promo video on its YouTube channel. Marketing and feel-good / world-changing agenda aside, the spot has a pretty telling message: Language, free at last. (emphasis mine).
I also just got an email stating that
“Since its launch 15 months ago, Duolingo has reached 10 million students and become the most popular way to learn languages online. No ad campaign, no gimmicks; just your support and a mission of free language education for the world.”
Looking a few years back the premise of language learning startups like Livemocha, busuu and babbel.com was to make language learning more affordable compared to their chosen nemesis Rosetta Stone. Since then Livemocha’s newsletter has turned into a sales channel for Rosetta Stone after the acquisition, promoting RS products at 60% off.
As a funny side note: if you follow the link to Livemocha’s YouTube channel on the bottom of the email, you will still find the legendary Livemocha spot with the (infamous) yellow boxes.
But back to Duolingo. If you talk to folks in the language learning industry you notice that most (all) of them are not happy about the new competitor. How can you compete with a free product that also seems to work quite well according to a study.
What Duolingo does is essentially disrupting the former disrupters or at least establishing itself as the third alternative method. busuu’s success is clearly its global community of language learners and babbel.com has chosen a more technology based approach similar to Rosetta Stone.
Now, of course we all know that there is no free lunch and, to use another catch phrase, if the product is free you are the product. Duolingo is selling this over a call to join a movement, giving your language learning a bigger purpose
“With Duolingo there is no tuition or subscription fee. It’s 100% free. Instead students like us give back by helping to translate websites, news and Wikipedia articles. It gives our personal language learning journeys a bigger purpose.”
I can see why many folks in the space see this storytelling as misleading. In fact Duolingo users are Mechanical Turks but instead of getting paid a couple of cents per task, they get “free” language lessons in return. Sounds good but they should also know how much their work is actually worth and whether language lessons, as good as they might be, are an adequate recompense.
The new spot is definitely a step-up from the first one that was more toned down yet also mentioned the business model behind Duolingo, adding the layer of being part of a global movement to better the world through language learning.
I also think people underestimate the power behind such global communities. Just recently Viki, the online community around translating and adding subtitles to popular TV shows, got acquired by Rakuten. One of the rumored bidders was Google.
Since I first heard about Duolingo and its concept I was pretty sure that the startup is one of the upcoming acquisitions by Google. Not only did Google acquire Luis von Ahn’s first startup reCAPTCHA but if Duolingo can prove that a global community can offer nearly instant translation of every web page, Google just has to write that check as it perfectly fits the overall strategy that we can see with Google Glass, Google Translate and other related services.
And if you think about it, von Ahn also took a site out of Google’s playbook in terms of the business model. Give the users a great service for free and make money based on their data and content.