I am very excited because after months of waiting I have just had my Duolingo account enabled. Duolingo is a very unique language learning site.

To explain the history of Duolingo, I have to start somewhere you probably weren’t expecting – captchas.

Captchas are the pictures of words that have become common on any websites that are susceptible to spam – be it signing up for a free email account or posting a comment on a blog. By translating from a picture to a word, you prove that you are human.

Luis von Ahn had an idea that would allow captchas to do something more interesting than just verify that you’re a real person. He wanted to get you to do some work too.

Recaptcha asks you to write out two words. One of these is the usual captcha, that proves that you’re human but the other is a word that has been scanned in from a document and isn’t clear enough for a computer to work out what it is. Recaptcha has transcribed over 440 million words. More information on recaptcha is available here.

Following on from the success of recaptcha, Luis von Ahn came up with a similar idea to harness the power of everyday internet users. Most of the internet is available only in English, which means that’s it’s not available for you if you don’t speak English. Similarly there is lots of language specific content not available in English (or any other languages). Duolingo teaches you German or Spanish while utilising your skills to translate Spanish and German text into English. They plan to add French, Italian, and Chinese.

Duolingo is currently running a private beta (hence my wait to start learning) but they have just issued another 50,000 invitations this week so if you’re interested – sign up now at www.duolingo.com.

There is a great TEDx video on the topic available here.

About Zoe Cunningham

Zoe Cunningham has been working in technology for over 12 years and is currently Managing Director at Softwire Technology. In her spare time she volunteers with a Ghanaian development charity, produces and presents two radio shows and plays backgammon to world class level (she won the Ladies' World Championship in 2010!).

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