When he first announced Duolingo, co-founder Luis Von Ahn’s stated goal was to crowd source the translation of the internet. As the site (and subsequent application) have undergone extremely transformative development, this original goal has been tossed by the wayside. No longer do Duolingo users translate web articles for algorithms to decide which inputs are the most accurate. Instead, we have a free-to-use language learning application which overly focuses on vocabulary and rote exercises, developed mostly by computer scientists rather than trained language educators, and monetized through ads (or a paid version without ads) and high-rolling investors.
Don’t get me wrong–I’ve used Duolingo on and off since the Beta release, and I assign weekly homework through Duolingo to my middle school French students. I love the “Stories” function, and I love the community interaction. That said, Duolingo is not without its flaws and lack of essential functionality for serious language enthusiasts: almost no support for grammar, no way for a Duolingo Classroom to force audio exercises, complete decontextualization of input (outside of the “Stories”), and essentially no creativity or higher-order critical thinking for responses (again, “Stories” is a good start with some of its follow-up questions). These flaws are not enough to make me stop assigning Duolingo as a supplemental activity for middle schoolers, but the recent investment from Google parent company, Alphabet, is enough for me to take a step back and question the security of my students’ (and my own) data.
Google, whose ubiquitous free-to-use products absolutely fill niches and push boundaries for the plethora of varied services they provide (e-mail, calendar, synchronous online word processing, cloud storage, etc.), also collects an obscene amount of data from you (especially if you once had a Google+ account, or maintain a YouTube account): name, date of birth, gender, sex, your face (through photos), your friends (and all their contact information), likes/subscriptions–and that’s just the information you feed them directly. Google tracks your search patterns, their algorithms read your emails (and automatically update your calendar with events that your friends invited you to, or the meetings that your boss sent you an email reminder for)–they collect everything they can in order to serve you up the ads you’re most likely to click on. For closed-source software like Duolingo to have Alphabet as a major investor may herald a new era of unrestricted data collection–possibly as an attempt to improve Google Translate.
Enter Librelingo: an open-source, open-access alternative to Duolingo. This nascent project needs contributors, for both coding the application and creating the language courses. Right now, the LibreLingo team aims to bring functionalities to their application that are similar to Duolingo’s: match-the-picture vocabulary exercises, speaking and reading exercises, and a marketplace for user-created courses. They also plan to implement other interesting features, such as wiki functionality and random language facts. If you’re a capable coder or a skilled Spanish speaker, reach out to the LibreLingo team and let’s help move this project along!