With the new web startup Duolingo, students of foreign language now have an ingenious and free alternative to purchasing formal classes or language-learning software. Users can create an account with Duolingo (or sign on through Facebook or Twitter) and immediately start web software-based language lessons in Spanish, German, French, or Portuguese.

The most innovative aspect of Duolingo is how it will make money—by selling its students’ homework! Duolingo will offer a low-cost translating service through which paying customers can upload content which they wish to have translated. The exercises that students translate for practice will be actual passages from the customers’ content, meaning that Duolingo’s students are simultaneously learning a new language and “crowd-sourcing” the translation of real documents. Duolingo currently offers this translation service for free, but it will begin charging for it next year.

Duolingo was created by Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He already has some ideas for how Duolingo will compete with other well-known language software like Rosetta Stone: “Most language-learning software providers have no incentive for you to learn. Once [they] get your $500, they’re happy. We’ll do a lot to get you to come back, because it really matters."

They certainly are doing a lot to get their students to come back. Duolingo features an addictive level-up system based on points earned for completing lessons, a leaderboard for following your friends’ point scores, and an iPhone app that can keep you learning on the go. Moreover, since signing up for Duolingo French lessons, I’ve received a daily email reminder to “Keep the owl,” Duolingo’s mascot, “happy” by visiting the website and practicing.

Von Ahn and his associates are yet another group of inventors who are improving the lives of thousands by creating a profitable product. They deserve all the money and praise that Duolingo brings them.

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Image: Duolingo

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