Duolingo is in discussions with the government to allow UK visa applicants to take an online language test for less than £50, replacing a system that costs some more than £1,000.
Luis von Ahn, the founder of the online language-learning app, said the $49 Duolingo test had less risk of fraud and would be fairer for people wanting to study or work in the UK.
Currently, visa applicants need to demonstrate their grasp of English by taking a “secure English language test” in an approved centre. These are available in 134 countries and territories, according to Home Office data.
Yet that leaves people in 67 countries having to travel abroad to take a test. These countries include Mali, Niger and more than 20 others in Africa; South American countries including Uruguay, Paraguay and Von Ahn’s native country, Guatemala, and many Caribbean and Pacific islands.
“I applied to come to the US to study,” Von Ahn told the Observer. “In my country they ran out of these tests so I had to fly to a neighbouring country, El Salvador – which, in the late 1990s, was a war zone. It cost me $1,000 just to fly there and take the test. It was ridiculous.”
Von Ahn became one of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs, launching Duolingo with his co-founder, Severin Hacker in 2012. By its 10th anniversary this year, the app had been downloaded half a billion times around the world, with 20m UK downloads.
The company is now worth $4bn, offers tuition in more than 40 languages, is about to launch a maths app and already offers Duolingo ABC, an app to help children learn to read, as well as the Duolingo English test. The online test was launched in 2016, and Von Ahn said there was resistance to it being adopted until the Covid pandemic hit.
Now the test is accepted by most major universities in the US, he said. “Harvard, Stanford, MIT … and I believe there are 75 universities in the UK that accept the test. But we’re not yet accepted by the UK government. I think they’re coming around to agreeing that online tests are good.
“We’ve been talking to them. I don’t know how fast the UK government moves. My experience is that all governments move very slowly. So I don’t know how long it will take but I think that will be really good for the world if it happens.”
Language tests for visas have been controversial. In February, MPs accused the Home Office of a “shocking miscarriage of justice” after evidence revealed that thousands of international students were wrongly accused of cheating in exam centres in the UK. Many students were deported, and some say their lives have been ruined.
Von Ahn said online tests were fairer and more secure than tests in physical centres.
Von Ahn said that he always intended Duolingo to be a “mission-driven” company making language education accessible to everybody.
“The thing I’m most proud of was in 2017 when I learned that Duolingo was being used all over Europe by refugees to learn the language of the country they were moving to. And the same week I learned Bill Gates was on Duolingo. To me that combination was incredible. That is exactly what we want to achieve – everybody has equal access to education.”
He added that Duolingo’s approach had changed a lot since launching in 2012. “We did what engineers do. We thought ‘let’s teach the most frequent word first’. So we literally started teaching in the order of frequency. And very quickly we found it was not that great because we were teaching particles like ‘the’ and ‘a’.”
Now the company employs “something like 30 to 40 people with PhDs” in language teaching and is “a lot more fun”, he said.
What does he make of the Department for Education’s decision to change GCSE language learning, which will mean pupils need to memorise lists of 1,700 words rather than learning about foreign cultures?
“No, this is how we did it when we launched. When I was clueless about how to teach a language 10 years ago, I thought very similarly. I have completely changed my mind on this. You need to know words but you need to know culture. I just learned that in our course we have an entire unit dedicated to asparagus. In Germany, asparagus really matters.”