Duolingo Uses AI to Teach Language

Photo courtesy of Hansel Heymans Vespucci and Google Earth

Duolingo is a popular language learning app that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help 37 million people learn one of 43 new languages. I’m one of those 37 million, working on learning Spanish for the past two years. The app’s AI-powered features include personalized instruction, adaptive learning, and gamified rewards.

Personalized Instruction

Duolingo’s AI-powered personalized instruction adapts to each user’s individual learning needs. The app starts by assessing each user’s current knowledge of the language they are learning. It makes a map of what content the learner knows and does not yet know. Once the app has a good understanding of each user’s strengths and weaknesses, it can then create a personalized learning plan that is tailored to each user’s individual needs. It would be fun to view your own map. Lawless Spanish, another language app using AI I sometimes look at, shows you your own map with content areas looking like countries and shading to represent progress.

For example, if a user is struggling with a particular grammar concept, the app will provide them with additional practice exercises on that concept. Or, if a user is already proficient in a particular area, the app will move them on to more challenging material. Sometimes the Spanish app will note that I’ve gotten all the answers right in consecutive modules and offer me the opportunity to skip ahead.

Adaptive Learning

Duolingo’s AI-powered adaptive learning also helps users learn more effectively. The app uses its system called Birdbrain to track each learner’s progress and adjust the difficulty of the exercises. Birdbrain keeps learners challenged but not overwhelmed.

For example, if a learner can complete an exercise quickly and easily, the app will make the next exercise more challenging. However, if a user is struggling with an exercise, the app will make the next exercise easier. Duolingo may also provide the learner with a Smart Tip, a mini-lesson targeted the mistake the learner made right when it will help the most. Smart Tips are based on a system called Blame, which tries to identify why that learner made that mistake using the learner’s knowledge map.

Gamified Rewards

Duolingo’s AI-powered gamified rewards help learners stay motivated. Introducing an ensemble cast of animated characters who ask questions makes the time learning much more fun than simply responding to text prompts. When Zari, Lin, Eddy, Junior, Bea, Lily, Falstaff, and Oscar first appeared, Duolingo noticed an immediate jump in the time learning spent on lessons. Also, learners can earn points for completing exercises, streaks for completing multiple lessons in a row, and badges for achieving certain milestones. They can then use their points to purchase virtual items, such as new characters or backgrounds.

Duolingo’s use of AI is helping users learn new languages more effectively and efficiently. The app’s personalized instruction, adaptive learning, and gamified rewards all help learners to reach their language skill goals.

In March, Duolingo announced it is partnering with OpenAI on two new ChatGPT-4-driven features. The Role Play features puts you into an imaginary scenario with one of its animated characters. Maybe hard-working, entrepreneurial Bea is working a second job at a coffee shop, and as your barista, asks whether you want coffee or tea. The conversation can flow from there within limits the app sets on the AI interaction. As a Duolingo product manager told a reporter for The New Yorker, “All of a sudden, we have an opportunity we thought was five years out … replicating the [immersive] human experience of learning a language.”

The second new feature, Explain My Answer, analyzes your mistakes in the Role Play scenario and produces a comprehensive report for feedback. I could definitely use both to improve my learning. Duolingo will release these new features over the next year as a premium tier called Duolingo Max.

How AI is Changing the Way We Learn Languages

Duolingo is just one example of how AI is being used to change the way we learn languages. Other companies are also using AI to develop new and innovative language learning tools. For example, Babbel, which is especially strong in vocabulary, also uses AI to create personalized study plans based on the words a learner knows. Rosetta Stone uses AI to create immersive language learning experiences by teaching Spanish, for example, entirely in Spanish, without translation. This helps learners feel like they are actually living in the country where the language is spoken, though they may need additional support.  

The Future of Language Learning

The future of language learning is bright as AI continues to develop. With the help of AI, we will learn new languages more effectively and efficiently than ever before, learning at our own pace and in our own time. Reaching your language learning goals with an app has never been faster or easier. It’s working for me.

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