Learning on the fly

What if you could convert some of the time you spend on your phone, aimlessly scrolling through social media or playing games, into something enriching, like learning a new language? That’s the bet entrepreneur Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Luis von Ahn made with Duolingo—and he was right: the digital language-learning program now has 300 million users, up from about 200 million a year ago. Duolingo offers English speakers lessons in 27 different tongues, from Danish to Spanish to Welsh. And it’s free, supported by ads on the platform (users can pay $9.99 a month for an ad-free experience). Duolingo “gamefies” the instruction; users earn points and virtual currency as they learn. “We’re using a lot of the techniques that games like Angry Birds use to get you addicted,” says von Ahn, “but to learning a language.” It’s fun—but for many people, it’s also a lifeline. Duolingo has become popular among Syrian refugees settling in new countries: the company has created courses in English, French, German and Swedish for Arabic speakers. —Sean Gregory

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