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One Man Aims to Translate the Web Into Every Major Language

One man is trying to translate the web into every major language, but could this ever include Native American languages?
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Haudenosaunee Youth displaying the Hiawatha Belt, which returned to Onondaga Lake on October 14.

Luis von Ahn is the founder and former CEO of ReCAPTCHA, Inc., and an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

How is one man going to get 100 million people to translate the web into every major language for free? According to his January 8 post on he is giving them something in return.

Luis von Ahn, the founder and former CEO of ReCAPTCHA, Inc., and an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, recently introduced the world to his newest project—Duolingo, where web users can “learn a language for free, and simultaneously translate the Web.”

But let’s back up a bit; what is CAPTCHA? It’s when you have to type randomly selected characters into a box to access a site. As von Ahn explains in the video below it’s so the computer knows you’re a human, not another computer trying to submit the form millions of times.

What about ReCAPTCHA? This is the concept von Ahn came up with after realizing that 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed every day, and wondering if that time could be put to good use.

Fifteen months after taking office, President William Jefferson Clinton made history by inviting tribal leaders to the White House.

An example of a one-word CAPTCHA

On some sites now, when you see a CAPTCHA there are actually two words: one of them is a word to prove you’re human and the other is a word that a computer translation program had trouble understanding when it scanned it from a book. So, web users are helping digitize books on a number of popular sites including Facebook, twitter and ticketmaster.

Von Ahn took this another step when he asked one of his graduate students how he could get 100 million people translating the web for free. Because more than five million of us have spent more than $500 for language learning software, we want to learn.

This is where Duolingo comes in. Users are “learning by doing,” von Ahn says in the video. The site gives beginners simple sentences in whatever language they want to learn, and as the user translates them they learn what the words mean and are subsequently given more advanced phrases to translate.

“The crazy thing about this method is it actually, really works,” he says. “People really can learn a language with it and they learn it about as well as the leading language software.”

Another benefit he says, is it’s “way more interesting” because people are “learning with real content.” It’s working for him, on his twitter page on December 21 he posted: “I learned Pronouns: Possessive Accusative in German! via @duolingo.”

Not only will Duolingo help people learn a new language for free, it also provides a fair business model for language education because, as von Ahn points out, right now the student pays. That’s unfair to the poor since about 95 percent of the world’s population can’t afford it.

“Since people are creating value while they are learning they don’t have to pay with their money, they pay with their time,” he says in the video. “The magical thing here is that they are paying with their time but that is time they would have spent anyway learning the language.”

But could von Ahn’s research have any affect on revitalizing Native American languages? ICTMN has contacted him about the possibility of translating the web into languages such as Navajo and Cherokee to find out.

Read Luis von Ahn’s full opinion piece on and visit his new site, to sign up.

See Luis von Ahn’s introduction of Duolingo here: