Duolingo Translator Layoffs Spark AI Debate

Duolingo Translator Layoffs Spark AI Debate

For linguaphiles around the world, committing to learn, practice, or improve skills in a non-native language is a classic New Year’s resolution. But as language-learning platform Duolingo, now a USD 8bn company, rang in 2024 with a few controversial HR decisions, some users have decided to ditch the app altogether. 

A Reddit user known as No_Comb_4582 first raised alarm bells in a late December 2023 post on a Duolingo-related thread. 

A self-identified contract translator for one of Duolingo’s “top three” languages, the user alleged that the company had “‘off boarded’ a huge percentage of their contractors who did translations.”

“Of course this is because they figured out that AI can do these translations in a fraction of the time,” No_Comb_4582 continued, sharing a screenshot of an official email from Duolingo severing their work relationship. “Plus it saves them money.” 

The story was amplified on Twitter, where an observer added, based on additional information on Reddit, that “the remaining [translators] are simply reviewing AI translations to make sure they’re ‘acceptable’.”

No_Comb_4582 admitted on Reddit that the scale was relatively small — two translators out of four on total on their team  —  but returned on January 8, 2024, to clarify that there had been “much wider layoffs outside [my] team.”

Reduce the Feeling of Uniqueness

Earlier, the user had shared that so-called ‘content curators’ — f.k.a. translators — will check AI-generated content that is then translated into multiple target languages, so that each course will have the same source content. While the new model means “a ton of content will be generated much more quickly,” No_Comb_4582 wrote, “ I personally think it will reduce the feeling of uniqueness of the languages.”  

According to a January 8, 2024 Bloomberg News report, Duolingo let go about 10% of contractors that day. The article quoted a Duolingo spokesperson who explained, “We just no longer need as many people to do the type of work some of these contractors were doing. Part of that could be attributed to AI.”

The thread started by an anonymous out-of-work, former Duolinguo linguist garnered more than 2,100 upvotes on Reddit and 567 comments at the time of writing. 

Most were critical of Duolingo’s decision, expressing their sadness at the news. A few outliers, however, seemed unmoved, with one shrugging, “Unfortunately, AI will beat humans in translation sooner or later.” 

In the same vein, another user wrote, “As long as the learning material is correct, I don’t mind whether it is human or AI generated.”

I’m not Paying $100 / Year 

That, of course, is the crux of the issue, and the majority of commenters seemed skeptical that AI would be able to match, much less surpass, the abilities of human linguists. 

While the OP only provided broad outlines of the day-to-day responsibilities of translators — among them “coming up with” content, translations, and alternative translations — some Duolingo users claimed they had already seen a decline in the quality of the language courses. 

In particular, critics found fault with automated mispronunciations, incorrect translations, and, as one user described it, “unhinged crap for practice.” 

Others took issue with the principle of paying a premium for AI-generated content, and some posts indicated Redditors had canceled or planned to cancel their “Super”-level subscriptions.

“I’m not paying $100/year so you can middleman me ChatGPT,” one Duolingo user wrote. “Deleting the app,” another commenter wrote, adding, “Maybe they can replace their paying customers with AI as well.” Elsewhere, users swapped recommendations for alternative language-learning apps. 

Interestingly, Duolingo — which filed to go public in June 2021 — still seems to be hiring, with openings for multiple AI research engineers in New York and in the company’s Pittsburgh, PA headquarters. Data scientists, software engineers, and several localization program managers and a senior content program manager are also on the “help wanted” list. 

The company is also advertising several freelance opportunities, including a Japanese language manager — though time will tell how, exactly, that role will evolve.