Duolingo's Trick to Teach Chinese: Treat it Like a Game

November 20, 2017

Gina Gotthilf, vice president of growth, at Duolingo joined Cheddar to discuss the launch of its Chinese course, the most asked of course since Duolingo's launch in 2011.

She said it's taken the company so long to launch the course because the app wasn't designed to teach characters and "tones", which are the fundamentals of the Chinese language.

The lessons are based on themes like greetings, food, travel, sports, business/finance, culture and even Chinese internet slang.

Gotthilf says one of the reasons Duolingo has taken off is because of the "gamifying" aspect of learning. It aims to make using the app in line for coffee, on the train to work, or waiting for a flight is fun and quick. People can learn at their own pace while being entertained in the process, she said.

The company has raised total of $108.3 million in funding and is currently valued at $700 million. The future plans aren't to keep adding new languages, but to increase the efficiency of the courses already launched. So far, 200 million subscribers have started learning a new language.


FEMALE_1: Difficult to learn. So one of the challenges definitely is memorizing the characters and I think that that's where actually we're really good at, because you have to interact with the- with the app in order to advance the story. You are always actually interacting with the content and sort of like daydreaming in class, and you see characters over and over, so memorizing is not the hard part. For Chinese, a hard part is learning the tones, which is also something that we have to build from scratch, like how to teach people how to learn the tones. There are four different tones for characters, so you can write an entir- an entire poem about a poet who tried to eat a stone lion all using the same word sure, but in different charact- in different tones like, sure, sure, sure, yeah. You know like different tones. That's the hard part, um and also like the way of thinking is so different from ours.

MALE_1: And so how does Duolingo help to kind of facilitate that learning? I mean because in all of this you've got to learn tones, you've got to learn the characters, there seems like a lot of things have to come together in order to make sure that I'm stepping away with the right know how to put myself in that situation.

FEMALE_1: I think the hardest part about learning Chinese is that because it's so difficult it takes a really long time. You have to commit for years in order to really learn it. So you're suppo- I supposedly you have to take 2200 hours of in lesson um of in class lessons in order to actually be fully proficient in it. That's a long time. And so people hate studying and it's kind of a drag, and most people have other you know other thi- things to study or jobs. So Dulingo turns it into a game and makes it really fun. That's I think where things really change and it makes it accessible. So we can do it at any time.

FEMALE_2: Alright, so Jane let us talk about the game implication for as I can, because I think that's a really interesting, so what Duolingo is gamification then is that really what's helping people sort of create these new learning habits?

FEMALE_1: Yeah absolutely. It's just you know you, it's really hard to convince yourself to do something you don't want to do. It's a lot easier to just pick up your phone while you're waiting in line and do Facebook or do some game or whatever, and that's what people are doing anyway. So we want them to gravitate towards Duolingo in that idle time when they have five minutes here, five minutes there, instead of when they have one full hour of you know something that's a drag to them, instead of having fun. And so that helps create a habit.