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Duolingo CEO On The Private Sector's Role In Investing In Northern Triangle Countries

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to take a look at another aspect of the Biden administration's approach to addressing migration from Central America - calling for more private investment in the region. The idea is that private investment is needed to generate more economic opportunity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the three countries in the so-called Northern Triangle, where extreme poverty is understood to be a factor pushing people to leave. So far, 12 companies have answered the administration's call, including Microsoft and MasterCard and also a name that might be familiar to students trying to learn another language, Duolingo, best known for its language learning app.

Joining us now to tell us more is Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo. Mr. von Ahn, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LUIS VON AHN: Hi. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I understand the company's offering to expand waivers for its English test for major universities in the Northern Triangle. That's a test that people have to take if they want to attend a - an English primary school or to get a visa, for example. I understand that the company's also developing a Spanish language app within your early literacy app, Duolingo ABC. Do I have that right?

VON AHN: That is correct.

MARTIN: Anything else that I missed?

VON AHN: Yeah, those are the two big things we are committing to do. We're also - I mean, we have a lot of users who use Duolingo to learn English for free. And, you know, we're just going to continue doing that. But the two main commitments are the expansion of our literacy app to Spanish and also waivers of our English test.

MARTIN: And why do you think that those are important?

VON AHN: Well, the one that's most important, I think, is the literacy one. You know, there's high levels of illiteracy in the region - in a lot of countries in Latin America, but in particular in the region. And one of the big reasons why people immigrate is just because there's no great job opportunities. But one of the reasons there's no great job opportunities is because there's low levels of education. And it all starts with being able to read and write. And this is why we're going to work on trying to teach people how to read and write a lot more. I mean, I don't know if we can do this. But I would love it to be the case that in the next, say, five years, we really reduce the levels of illiteracy to those comparable of maybe, say, the United States. I don't know if this is possible, but I would like to do that.

MARTIN: Well, you've written about this. I mean, if - people who follow you on Twitter know that, you know, you've talked about this. I mean, you grew up in Guatemala. You came to the U.S. for college. And one of the things that you talked about is the fact that even though you came from an upper middle-class background, you said that your mother spent basically all of her earnings on your education. And, if - you know, if you hadn't had that opportunity, you're just not really sure, you know, what you'd be doing.

VON AHN: I mean, I think that's the - that's one of the big issues in countries like Guatemala. There's just this humongous inequality. There's the people who are wealthy - and there's a few very wealthy people there - who can get themselves really good educations and therefore continue being wealthy. And then there's, you know, the rest of the people who - many of them don't even learn how to read and write.

And, you know, I was fortunate that my mother was a doctor. And she - well, she basically spent all her money making sure that I got a good education. And that's why I was able to come here to the United States to get - to go to college, et cetera. But, you know, what I would like to do is make it so that everybody at least gets a basic education. I think that would make a big difference in the country.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we've talked about - in this country, we've talked about the inequality around, say, internet access, the inequality around access to technology. While a lot of people here in the U.S. have smartphones, for example...

VON AHN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Which, you know, allows people to do a lot of things, but the region - the Northern Triangle doesn't have strong broadband infrastructure. And the wireless networks are also not the most reliable. So how does this expand opportunity to people who don't already have access to those things?

VON AHN: Yeah. It's something we worry about a lot. But there's a couple of things to say. First of all, that's changing. Definitely over time, more and more people are having access to either broadband or maybe just 3G or something like that. So we're betting on the fact that more and more people are going to have access to smartphones. And actually, a lot of them do have access to smartphones. They may just not have data all the time. So what we're doing is we're working so that our app can be used when you only have data, say, once a week.

MARTIN: I'm wondering what it's been like for you just listening to this debate about migration. And I'm using that sort of word advisedly because it's been tense and very, at times, kind of emotional and ugly over - in recent years around migration. As a person who grew up in Guatemala, you came to the U.S. as a young man and have spent your sort of professional life here. I'm just wondering what these last couple of years have been like for you, sort of watching this debate unfold, especially kind of this most recent surge. Like, what's been going through your mind through all of this?

VON AHN: Yeah. It's been - well, it's been quite emotional, of course. You know, there's a major shift between what the previous administration was doing and what the current administration was doing. It's kind of like short-term versus long-term thinking. I mean, the previous administration just wanted to build a wall. And the current administration is trying to attack the root cause, which is asking why is it that people want to leave? And, you know, the reason people want to leave is because of so much poverty. So let's try to attack that root cause. I much prefer, of course, that approach.

I just know a lot of people from Guatemala, that many of them don't have a lot of money. And, you know, the type of thing that people say is, I'd rather be in jail in the U.S. than free in Guatemala. And when you have people saying stuff like that, it's very hard to stop them from coming. I mean, they - it's not like they don't know that they're risking their lives to come. So I very much like the approach of trying to improve the fundamental economic situation of these countries. It's going to take a while, but we have to start working on it because otherwise this is going to be a problem that will be there for a long time.

MARTIN: What's your sense of the timeline? I'm not holding you to this, but I'm interested in your sense of the timeline, how long this - you think it will take to see results.

VON AHN: I don't think it will be quick. We have to do two things. I mean, you do have to try to do as much as you can to deter it. And I think that's the quick fix. But, you know, the real fixing the root cause - you know, how long does it take for a country to go from extreme poverty to not so extreme poverty? I don't know. A decade at least. It's just - it's not quick, right? There's not many examples of countries that have gone from extreme poverty to not in, you know, a year. That's - I just don't think that can happen.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you know, the former president and his approach still has quite a following. That's been sort of made evident. And what do you say to people who said, well, why not just build the wall and just stop people from coming? I mean, just stop. What do you say to them who think that was the right approach? How would you answer that?

VON AHN: Here's what I would say. How many years have we been fighting the war on drugs? Because it's still been going on. And it has not worked, right? I mean, drugs are still coming into the United States from southern countries. I don't know how much money has been spent fighting that. And it is because they'll find a way. And it is a similar case here. These people have such bad lives and so much desire for economic improvement of their own lives that they know they are risking their lives, and they'll continue risking their lives coming here. So, you know, you can build a wall. It'll probably deter some people, but it won't stop it. So I think what I would tell them is just look at the war on drugs. It just hasn't worked.

MARTIN: Luis von Ahn is the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo. Mr. von Ahn, thanks so much for sharing some time.

VON AHN: Thank you. And thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.