Learn a new language and translate the web

Marc Sanchez Jun 20, 2012

Luis von Ahn, the creator of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA  – you know, those squiggly, blurry words you have to type before you can submit an online form, has set his sights on teaching us a new language with his latest project: Duolingo.

The New York Times lays out the details:

Duolingo, which opened to the public on Tuesday, proposes to put armies of language learners to work translating text on the Web.
For the learners, Duolingo offers basic lessons, followed by sentences to translate, one at a time, from simple to more difficult. For online content providers wanting translations, Duolingo offers, for now at least, free labor.

For now the site helps English speakers learn Spanish, French, and German, as well as giving native Spanish speakers a crack at English. If you want to learn one of the languages, you start out by getting a quick, easy lesson followed by a sentence to translate. Lessons get progressively harder (hey – just like school!) until you become somewhat fluent in the language. Booking a trip to Paris, however, probably isn’t going to come after a month of translations, but hey, free language lessons. The killing two birds with one stone feature comes from that last part: the sentence. Companies in need of translation provide the text that Duolingo then gives its “students” in their lessons.

Von Ahn thinks companies will benefit with more nuanced translations because humans are doing the translating, as opposed to a piece of software like Google Translate. The BBC spoke with von Ahn:

“The computer always knows what each word can translate to, all the possibilities – that’s just a bilingual dictionary. But the computer doesn’t know that in this case, a word means girl, and in that case, it means daughter,” says von Ahn.
So when Duolingo presents the user with a sentence, it offers all the possible translations for each individual word. The user has to build the sentence, using their understanding of their native language.
To weed out bad translations, the site asks users to rate each others’ answers and chooses only the top-ranked solutions.

Von Ahn, a native of Guatemala, came up with the idea after seeing that his Spanish-speaking relatives had far fewer options when it came to accessing the Internet. If something is online, chances are way more likely that that “something” will be in English instead of Spanish. The Times reports that von Ahn’s first translation project will be Wikipedia.

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