Business
5:23 pm
Thu December 19, 2013

Pittsburgh Company Grabs Free App of the Year Title from Apple

A screenshot from the app of the year, Duolingo. One of the app's many French lessons.
Credit Nick Frost / 90.5 WESA

Apple has chosen a Pittsburgh-born app as its free app of the year.

Duolingo teaches people how to speak a new language, and it's been downloaded more than 10 million times since being released a year ago. 

Duolingo CEO Louis Von Ahn said more than a billion people are trying to learn a new language. He believes two-thirds of them are from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, and the reason they are learning a new language is because they are trying to get ahead in life.

“So it’s this irony that most of the people who need to learn another language don’t have very much money and are doing so, so that they can get a job, but the ways to learn a language require a lot of money,” Von Ahn said.

The app works like a game than Von Ahn contends is actually fun. In the process it can teach one of 6 different languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Italian.

The way Duolingo keeps the app free is by selling the student’s new skills. After a lesson is taught, the student is asked if they would like some practice. That practice happens to be real world documents that Duolingo is being paid to translate. 

Among the notable clients is CNN, according to Von Ahn.

Multiple students translate the same document to make sure it is accurate.

Von Ahn said he was “super happy” and the honor was “unexpected.”

“This is the first time they gave this honor to an education app," he said. "Normally they give it to either games or photo sharing apps. This is the first time they have given it to an education app. So we are pretty proud about that.”

Duolingo is looking to add another 50 languages in the next year.  The company has 27 employees in its Pittsburgh office, but most of the work on the new languages is being done by volunteers that Van Ahn says are happy to do the work because they believe in make language lessons free to everyone.