For those who don’t know, Duolingo is an awesome app which helps you to learn a language. Each day, for the last 112 days (as Duolingo tells me), I have studied Spanish on this app. Averaging 20 minutes per day on this app – bolstered by weekly online Spanish lessons with a real tutor – I now comprehend quite a lot of Spanish. At school, I despised language learning.
Duolingo gamifies language learning and uses the latest research to enhance the tutee’s time on the platform. Me encanta Duolingo! When I look at the apps assembled on my phone, there are only a few which bring me joy; most are there for functional reasons. Duolingo is good for me. Opening the snazzy app each morning brings me great pleasure.
Duolingo’s methodology of cajoling tutees to stay engaged ought to be copied by all learning establishments, because it works. Over 1.5m people have used the app each day for over one year. Using Duolingo’s simple user interface is a pleasure. I recommend that everyone has a play with this app: 97% of users don’t pay to use it. With half a billion users, Duolingo has improved the planet and made a massive profit.
Yesterday, I listened to a podcast interview with the co-founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn. Nice guy. For me, there were two important takeaways from the wide-ranging conversation. First, Duolingo’s mission to – for free – educate hundreds of millions of people motors most of the platform’s staff to keep improving the tech in order to educate more people. The platform’s commitment to its mission is the reason for its success. It is a potent example that the best businesses have a mission over and above profit-making. In fact, without their missionary zeal, their wild profits would not have materialised. My own experience is that colleagues working in a mission-driven business go above and beyond.
The second key learning point for me is a cultural one, which I believe will shape geopolitics for decades to come. The co-founder explained that, broadly speaking, of the half a billion users, there are two distinct groups of learners, roughly in two equal camps. Half of users are people learning English language because they need to for financial reasons: to get on at work; to get into a better university etc. The other half are, like me, learning for fun, and usually opt for languages such as Spanish and French.
Surprisingly, given that the top echelons of society are forcing their children to learn Mandarin, only around 1% of the tutees are choosing to learn Mandarin. In fact, possibly more people are learning Korean than Chinese, because of the brilliance of South Korean movies. People are voting with their fingers and eschewing Mandarin. Before hearing these stats, I would have guessed that around one-third of tutees would have been learning Mandarin.
With the meteoric rise of China as an economic and military force there is much talk that this century will be China’s. This is what I assumed would happen, but given that hundreds of millions of people are still choosing to learn English, my interpretation of these stats is that there is significant and worldwide hostility to Chinese influence. And with hundreds of millions of people voluntarily choosing to learn English it seems to me, that culturally at least, the West – primarily the English-speaking West – will remain dominant, even if economically its superiority has been neutered. English remains the lingua franca.
Certainly, part of the reason why people don’t learn Mandarin is due to its inherent complexity, but having travelled in China – albeit twenty-ish years ago – it is not a country that I am eager to return to. When I reflect on my time in China, I do not do so with any warmth. Seemingly, hundreds of millions of people have a similar antipathy towards China. My estimation is that the vast “soft power” provided by the English language and, to a lesser degree, its culture, ought to mean that although Chinese economic and military power will continue to rise, Chinese cultural dominance will not occur this century.