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Language app Duolingo launches crowd-source platform

Duolingo Incubator aims to help people create new language lessons so that foreign languages aren't quite so foreign any more.

Luis von Ahn, founder of Duolingo. CNET

Popular language education app Duolingo on Wednesday launched the Duolingo Incubator, a crowd-sourcing platform where users can apply to create new language lessons.

Duolingo offers courses in six languages -- English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Portuguese -- and is looking to expand the list of available languages with the help of its community.

Claiming 10 million users, Duolingo is the No. 1 free education app in both Google Play and the App Store. While English speakers can learn any of the other five languages available on the platform, non-English speakers are limited to learning English only. English speakers make up 60 percent of current users; Spanish speakers, 20 percent; and Portuguese speakers, 15 percent.

Co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn, 34, said the idea for the incubator is to expand the options through users' contributions to have "someone who speaks Spanish learn Portuguese or French."

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Developing a Duolingo lesson can take one person up to three months to complete, said von Ahn, and he hopes that the crowd-sourced effort will reduce the time.

The Pittsburgh-based company has 29 employees and has received $18.3 million in backing from investors including Ashton Kutcher, Tim Ferriss, and Union Square Ventures.

Starting today, users can suggest their own courses -- like, for example, Arab to Spanish or Mandarin to Portuguese -- through the Incubator's Web page. Duolingo's staff will review and select the proposals to pursue. Once approved, the staff will give the applicant specific instructions based on the methodology that Duolingo uses to create lessons -- such as offering a list of 3,000 basic words to translate in both languages and exercises that address concepts like plural and singular usage.

The applicant will become the course's moderator and can solicit others' help to develop the language-learning program they proposed. These programs will be distributed via all of Duolingo's platforms.

Von Ahn, born in Guatemala, founded ReCaptcha and sold it to Google in 2009.

"When I finished ReCaptcha, I was in a very fortunate point in my life where I didn't have to work anymore and I wanted to do something in education," von Ahn said. "It has a lot to do with having being raised in Guatemala, where lots of people want to learn languages but cannot pay."

Duolingo has been free since it launched 16 months ago.

The expectation with the Incubator, he said, "is to have many more languages. We hope to get to 50 or 100."