Duolingo's white hat
Last week as a substitute teacher I watched the assigned 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma with students in an AP psychology class. It showcased a dozen of the tech geniuses who wrote the algorithms that made Google, Facebook and Twitter so addictive that very few people can turn away from cellphone screens.
Guilt rested heavily with the techies and many said they severely limited their own children’s tech time.
As I rode a DTA bus home practicing French on my cell I occasionally looked up and peeked at some of the students who had watched the documentary with me in class equally absorbed by their phones.
The curse of the Internet was on display for Minnesota voters days before the last election. Five months earlier I had written a column for the Reader poking fun at Republicans after attending their 8th District congressional convention –“The Furries are coming for us,” May 28, 2022. It was born when one delegate told me children who identified as cats were demanding kitty litter boxes in their school bathrooms.
The week before the election, long after the joke had been exposed, Republican Governor candidate Dr. Scott Jensen repeated it to the press as gospel.
This promised follow-up to last week’s column about learning French in my dotage was intended to be a testimonial to the Internet company Duolingo. It will now, however, be heavily larded with pessimism.
Ten-year- old Duolingo has a market cap just less than $3 billion. It is only the second Internet sensation created by Luis von Ahn’s.
A pioneer of “crowdsourcing,” where the audience helps build things on the Internet, von Ahn’s CAPTCHA made buying things on the Internet safer. Formerly prone to interference by bots searching for credit card numbers CAPTCHA asked Internet shoppers to identify objects like boats, stop lights or animals in randomly generated photographs to prove they were real customers.
Bots, like Republican Gubernatorial candidates, are still too stupid to pull off this simple trick. Wikipedia, my favorite white hat on the Internet, is another crowd-sourced website. It is a vast encyclopedia that has been put together by millions of people working together to share their knowledge with the world. Back in the Internet’s infancy it was an example of what I hoped the whole Internet would become.
After photos Von Ahn began using words culled from 150 years of the New York Times newspapers to safeguard Internet transactions. CAPTCHA drew from papers stretching back 150 years. With every keystroke Internet buyers helped digitize that entire archive which is now easily searchable by scholars and historians.
With his millions the multi-lingual Von Ahn began imagining an Internet app that would be both fun and free to teach foreign languages. He could use feedback from millions of learners to craft the most effective language learning system possible. Ten years ago he started with French and Spanish. Today Duolingo offers mor than 30 languages for people to study at no cost.
I downloaded Duolingo a few months after my wife and discovered our versions were different. Mine was an update and like every other Duo user I was helping Duo linguists and technicians figure out to make Duolingo better.
Duo keeps shedding its skin like a snake as it grows and improves. I found chat rooms of Duo users who shared tips, bragged and complained. A dedicated core raced to earn “crowns” skipping from one language to the next in order to top weekly leader boards. They caught the spirit of the game even if their language learning was broad and superficial.
Whatever their motivation Duolingo learned from its users and was driven to make its users serious language learners while it became an ever more efficient teacher.
Language is flexible. Even simple ideas can be expressed in dozens of slightly different sentences that Duo’s staff would fail to anticipate. Millions of Duo users like me suggest alternate answers. We add to Duo’s memory banks enhancing learning for succeeding generations.
And Duo can figure out what makes new learning stick in our heads by keeping track of what we need tp work on.
Duo is free but uses ads to pay for its ongoing development. I fork over a modest $4 a month to avoid them.
I have one quibble with Duolingo – its pitch to new users that a language can be learned in just 15 minutes a day.
Not all the languages are equal. The French I study is perhaps the most extensive Duo course.
Following a suggestion from a fellow user I experimented on Duo’s English from French course. The last time I looked it was a pale shadow of French from English.
And Duo continues to add new languages like Navaho, Hawaiian and Yiddish.
I can imagine some future Duo offering a thousand languages and even helping rescue America’s fading native languages. In a world where mischief and malice spread on the Internet Duolingo is one of the good guys.
Compare it with Facebook, whose investors pushed it to post ads inciting the people of Burma to slaughter its Rohingya minority. Although less lethal in the U.S., Facebook has helped make Thanksgiving a very uncomfortable family holiday.
A Chinese proverb tells us that it is a curse to live in interesting times. There has never been a more interesting time. Humanity seems poised to destroy God’s Ark in a very few years. We need more white hats like Duolingo.
Harry Welty also shoots his mouth off at lincolndemocrat.com