Duolingo wants to be the ‘Sesame Street’ for adults

Since launching in 2011, Duolingo has turn into one among the hottest language-learning apps on the market. Whereas that is still its core service, the just lately public firm has loftier ambitions. “Certainly one of the issues I typically say is we’re attempting to make Sesame Avenue for grown-ups,” says Timothy Shey, the firm’s vp of studios and content material.

Inching towards that objective, Duolingo unveiled a various roster of characters final yr that seem all through the platform’s programs. And now, as a substitute of utilizing generic text-to-speech (TTS) audio for language classes, every of Duolingo’s characters has its personal distinctive voice, in addition to a backstory.

“Certainly one of the parts of nice storytelling is nice characters,” Shey says. “We had been issues like sitcoms or exhibits like Sesame Avenue the place there’s a forged of characters that you just actually join with and interact with, and it offers you a cause to come again day-after-day.”

Duolingo is synonymous with its mascot, Duo, the cheerful inexperienced owl whose persistent reminders that you just’ve been slacking in your classes turned a series of memes round 2017. Seeing how the web embraced Duo prompted Shey and his group to construct out the Duolingo universe with human characters.


Lily is an emo teen who’s inexplicably finest mates with bubbly Zari. Eddy is a thirtysomething single dad to his 8-year-old son, Junior. Vikram previously labored in finance however stop his job to turn into a baker. Oscar is a homosexual artwork trainer who “relates to artwork higher than he does to individuals.” There are 9 characters to this point with a variety of races, ages, spiritual backgrounds, and sexual orientations.

Emily Chiu, senior artistic producer at Duolingo, explains that as well as to having worldwide illustration, which is sensible for an app that provides 40 distinct languages to study, creating relationships amongst the characters can be a shortcut for storytelling. “A few of our tales can solely be like 100 phrases, which is a large limitation for storytelling,” she says. “But when the characters and their relationships, then there’s actually no want to clarify fairly as a lot.”

On high of narrative context, the group at Duolingo believes giving characters their very own voices may support in the studying course of. Prior to the newest replace, programs used generic TTS audio for all characters, that means 8-year previous Junior sounded the identical as Oscar, who’s in his 40s.

“It’d be unintentionally humorous,” Shey says, “however how a lot better would it not be if it gave the impression of Junior?”

[Images: Courtesy of Duolingo]

Duolingo employed casting director Ivy Isenberg (Name of Responsibility, Robotic Hen) to discover voice actors to play every character—however that offered a sequence of challenges. For TTS to work, the enter audio has to sound comparatively flat. As an alternative of talking with regular inflections and variations in tone, every phrase has to be acknowledged evenly.

That mentioned, the voice actors nonetheless had to make their voices match their characters. One line in a Duolingo course is “I’m sick, however I didn’t vomit.” For Zari, a personality who Chiu describes as somebody who’s all “sunshine and lollipops and rainbows,” the immediate for the voice actor was, “Say this such as you’re convincing a trainer that you just’re effectively sufficient to go on a subject journey,” Chiu says. Or if it’s a optimistic line resembling, “That is my best treasure, my household” nevertheless it’s a pessimistic character like Lily who’s delivering it, “she has to say it with monotone disdain,” Chiu says. “We gave [her voice actor] the course of, ‘Say the whole lot like your mother is forcing you to say it.’”

Duolingo is banking on that spotlight to element with the characters to create a good stronger reference to its viewers. Shey notes that even earlier than the rollout of those distinct voices, customers would tweet issues like “Duolingo tales are my favourite TV present” based mostly solely on the characters’ interactions. “We all know they’re keying in on what we’re attempting to do,” Shey says. “We’re actually attempting to play on tropes from animation and sitcoms the place there are easy relationships that you would be able to construct, hopefully, in an infinite variety of tales.”


[Animation: Courtesy of Duolingo]

“If we’re actually going to make language studying one thing that everybody does day-after-day, then we’re going to have to make it as enjoyable as the apps they use day-after-day,” Shey continues. “So our competitors isn’t different language-learning apps. It’s issues like YouTube, Netflix, and the locations that they’re spending their time.”

However, by way of making a cinematic universe of Duolingo characters, Shey says they’re attempting not to get forward of themselves. “It’s most likely nonetheless a small core of our learners that even know these characters’ names,” he says. “Our ambitions had been pretty easy in the starting: Can we make characters that individuals will like?” Figuring out that’s been the case to this point, Shey can envision these characters surfacing somewhere else throughout Duolingo, presumably together with the firm’s forthcoming math-learning app.

By placing storytelling at the forefront, Duolingo is slowly constructing a catalog of mental property that might undoubtedly be turbocharged by the firm going public earlier this month—all of which is paving the manner towards a well-known road. “We’ve got this actually broad ambition: We’re a platform and a tech firm, however we are also creating unique content material from all of our classes,” Shey says. “We’re nonetheless constructing that core competency of nice storytelling, however we aspire to be the finest. We aspire to iconic issues like Sesame.”