Your favorite language learning app, now possibly offshore

As industries adapt their operations to survive the pandemic, the technology sector’s capacity for remote work has earned many companies a unique position of leverage in the face of policy decisions. The language learning app Duolingo might be at the forefront — and may actually choose to leave the US as a result.

In the wake of President Trump’s decision to extend a ban on issuing green cards and expand the mandate to temporary work visas, Duolingo’s CEO and creator Luis von Ahn on June 22 tweeted, “Since we can now work well remotely, and since the US is reducing immigration, a lot of technology development will shift away to other countries. This is bitter sweet for me: the US welcomed me, so I feel bad for it, but I’m glad other countries will see the economic benefit.” 

Serving a user-base of nearly 300 million people worldwide, Duolingo functions as a free learning tool that creates grammar and vocabulary games, along with a number of other resources through in-app purchases. The games reward users with experience points for consistent use and progress made on the app. The app is localized for its users as well.

To stay up to date on language trends, the app builds upon its noteworthy database of 38 languages and 95 different courses through language and teaching experts and volunteer contributors, developing a variety of content for users at any stage of learning. Since COVID-19 made stay-at-home recreation a necessity, apps popularity and daily usage rates have skyrocketed.

The Pittsburgh Business Times recently reported Duolingo’s status as Pittsburgh’s first billion-dollar startup, currently valued at $1.5 billion. According to a Forbes article written in August 2019, the company had plans to increase its employment from 170 to 200, many of whom work at the Pittsburgh headquarters. However, with their operations in the East Liberty neighborhood having to shift online, von Ahn sees the shift to remote work as a valuable resource and point of leverage that can better mobilize operations even with borders closed to many of his employees. 

In a further rebuke to the policy decision and a call to action to Pennsylvania politicians at local and state levels, von Ahn wrote in a tweet last week, “I’m proud that @duolingo, the most valuable startup in PA, is seen as an inspiration for Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, if the US policies against (extremely qualified) immigration continue, we’ll be forced to move jobs (and inspiration) to Toronto @SenToomey @SenBobCasey @billpeduto.” Both Senator Casey and Mayor Peduto tweeted out messages of solidarity with the company and its international workforce.

In such an unstable moment, von Ahn will likely continue making calls for support to protect Duolingo’s mission to educate users in fun, accessible ways. However, one of the core principles to the mission is to provide the expertise of native speakers in dozens of languages. The pandemic has forced Duolingo to shift its operations online, but the policy decisions of the US administration may force the company to seek a new home abroad.

Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.


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