Duolingo: Esperanto coming soon!


(Guest post by Chuck Smith)

Have you heard of the latest language-learning website that’s sweeping the globe: Duolingo? It was founded by Luis von Ahn, previously best-known for creating Captcha, those boxes on the Internet where you have to type a mangled word to prove that you’re human.

His next dream is to translate the entire Internet in every language, an ambitious goal to say the least! Through this new website, anyone can learn a language for free and once they progress far enough in learning the language, they can practice by translating real texts from their target language. Then people collaborate in a manner similar to Wikipedia and when the translations are good enough, they send the results to their clients and this is how they make money.

Duolingo and Esperanto

Luis von Ahn once said that Esperanto has been, by far, the most commonly requested language on their site as you can hear yourself from his lecture about Duolingo at Duke University. So, Esperanto was recently added as one of the new languages in its Incubator, which means that it’s open to collaborators to create the course. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first two people selected to start making the course from the very beginning. We were given a template for a generic skill tree with lessons to learn for English speakers, which we could modify as we liked to make it suitable for Esperanto.

One example of this customization is that relatively few Esperanto speakers know the word for suit (kompleto), because it’s fairly rare to wear a suit in typical Esperanto situations even though this is a really important word for other languages. In the end, we decided it wasn’t basic clothing vocabulary and moved it to a more advanced lesson called Business. Another example is that we’re working on a series of lessons called Affixes 1-3. That means that by the end of the course, you will have learned all the Esperanto affixes with examples of their usage.

In this system, we systematically teach vocabulary and every new word has to have at least three example sentences. With each sentence, we have to think of every possible translation. This makes sure you learn each word as used in a normal context and have enough reinforcement to help it stick in your head. Since we’re only human, once our course reaches a certain level of completeness, we’ll launch into a beta testing phase. Then the public can take the course and point out translations that are missing or mistakes in the course. After we’ve dealt with enough of these reports, then the course can enter its “stable” phase. At this point, Duolingo can start considering if they want to make other courses for Esperanto based on another popular language like French or Spanish.

Our team of five people has now brought Esperanto now over halfway through Incubation Phase 1 (course not yet released) and it’s been a wild ride. You can see all the courses in all phases of development here on the official page of the Duolingo Incubator.

The Future

I personally believe this will be known as one of the most important projects in the history of Esperanto. To get some idea of where Esperanto is going within the Duolingo system, it’s important to compare it with other languages within the same system. I would like to make comparisons between Esperanto, Irish and Ukrainian.

Ukrainian and Esperanto currently

First I would like to compare it with Ukrainian with the only reason being that the Esperanto and Ukrainian course description pages were both launched on Nov 4, 2014. Here people can sign up if they want to be notified when the course is launched. As of this time, 2610 people are waiting for Ukrainian (a language with 30 million speakers), while 6320 are waiting for Esperanto.

I personally believe that language course creators incorrectly estimate the market demand for Esperanto courses by looking solely at its number of speakers. In my opinion, this can be compared with looking at population density with respect to public transportation. Many people look at population density to determine whether high-speed train lines should be built. However, the correct question to ask when looking at market demand is the traffic population density. Many people have to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles even though the people living between these cities doesn’t come close to the density of people living, for example, in many European countries. For more about this, see my article on Trains and Esperanto.

In the same way, it is more important to look at how many people are interested in learning Esperanto than its current number of speakers. In this sense, it’s interesting to note which language series offer a course for Ukrainian even though there is currently more demand for Esperanto: Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Colloquial, Pod101, etc. Some people may criticize these numbers and say that a lot of these 6320 are likely to be Esperanto speakers who just want to inflate the numbers, but I think a large amount of these are beginner or intermediate speakers who still want this Duolingo course to improve their language. A lot of people learning on Duolingo aren’t starting to learn their foreign language there from scratch.

Irish and the future of Esperanto

Another interesting metric is to take another small language like Irish. It is interesting to note that currently more people are learning Irish on Duolingo than there are native speakers of this language as posted by Luis von Ahn in this thread. I then answered this with my own parody thread that there are more people signed up for the Esperanto course than its number of native speakers.

So, considering that Irish has 130,000 native speakers with around 2 million speakers worldwide to various levels of capability, this is the closest language Duolingo offers for comparison to Esperanto to look into the future. The course went into beta on Aug 29, 2014, so now in a little under four months, there are over 250,000 people who have started learning Irish on Duolingo. This means that with a conservative estimate, it is very likely that next year over 100,000 people will have started learning Esperanto by the end of 2015.

Esperanto in Duolingo

So, last week we finalized our skill tree. You can see it below, but subject to change. Also, if you want to be notified when our course goes live, sign up on the official Duolingo Esperanto course page!

So, the most common question I get is when will the course launch? My best guess as of now would be May 2015. In any case, it will be very interesting to see what over 100,000 new Esperanto students does to its reputation around the world. Someone in a Duolingo thread did point out something else though, all these new Esperanto speakers will already, by definition, also be English speakers, which is true. But this could change when another Duolingo Esperanto course comes out, such as for French or Spanish speakers. Who knows what the future holds? At least as we go into 2015, we can be sure of one thing: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Duolingo's Esperanto skill tree so far
Duolingo’s Esperanto skill tree so far