For $20, You Can Test Your English Skills on Your Smartphone

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A blog about business and economics.
April 25 2014 5:34 PM

Duolingo Moves Into Language Proficiency Exams

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Can tests be addictive too?

Screenshot from Duolingo

Duolingo has made language learning cool. The popular app has millions of English speakers brushing up on their Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese, and is teaching English to speakers of those languages plus half a dozen others. It's a fully gamified approach to foreign language education and one of the most productive means of procrastination ever created, as Seth Stevenson wrote in Slate earlier this year.

Starting next month, users of the app will have a chance to see their language progress rewarded with more than a trumpet fanfare at the end of a lesson. Duolingo announced this week that it will begin offering a cheap app-based English proficiency exam starting May 13. The $20 test will be available on Android-based phones, the Wall Street Journal reported, and designed to compete with existing exams like the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

The tests might not be as addictive and fun as Duolingo itself, but they'll be important in another way: by bringing affordable language exams to people who might not afford them otherwise. The costs of a TOEFL exam alone, for example, can range from $160 to $250. Luis von Ahn, the creator of Duolingo and a MacArthur fellow, sees part of the app's mission as teaching free-of-cost English to people for whom the skills can be a huge step up on the socioeconomic ladder.

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Will people cheat on a smartphone test? Duolingo thinks not. Or at least, the company thinks it will have enough measures in place to catch any wrongdoers. According to the Journal, tests will only be given on smartphones with front-facing cameras and the test-taker will have to rotate the device 360 degrees to demonstrate that no one else is present. Duolingo will record all sound and video during the exam, and can review 60 exams an hour. And besides, with someone like von Ahn running the show, cheaters won't want to take the chance.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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