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What language does the Internet speak? All languages, of course, but English much more so than others. Per Wikipedia, anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of the content on the World Wide Web today is written in English. That’s great for all of us English speakers, but what about the huge chunk of the world that doesn’t speak English? Their Internet experience is necessarily limited by their language skills. 

Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wants to change that equation by doing nothing less than translating the entire Internet.

Obviously, that’s a staggering prospect considering the sheer amount of content on the web. But according to Fox News, that’s the ambition behind Professor von Ahn’s new language-learning start-up Duolingo. Duolingo offers free language learning to everybody. Since the best way to learn is by doing, language learners on the service are simply assigned a few sentences to translate from the language they’re trying to learn into their native language. Each little snippet of text is from a real website. Duolingo then records the translation, compares it to other people’s translations of the same sentence and determines what the best translation for the sentence probably is. This is similar to the method used by Facebook to translate its website, though of course Duolingo’s project is much more ambitious in scope.

Professor von Ahn says that people are the “secret sauce” that will distinguish the translations Duolingo produces from Google Translate. He told Fox,

“We thought that maybe we could do it with a computer but we saw we couldn’t, that (machine) translations are really bad for now and we need human beings… The translations aren’t perfect but we’ve confirmed that they are very, very good.”

Meanwhile, Duolingo participants get the opportunity to learn a new language (or at least get some practice in it) for free. This will be especially valuable to people in developing countries who wish to learn English. Professor von Ahn notes that language learning programs “cost a lot of money, some up to $500, and for someone in Latin America that’s a great deal of money.” Compared to the high cost of a formal course, the time spent in translation is bargain. 

For some people, the opportunity to learn a new language through translation will be a perfect fit. Others may prefer a more structured method of language learning. Either way, though, translating sentences via Duolingo will be great practice. What do you think of this idea?