Since launching in 2011, Duolingo has become one of the most popular language-learning apps on the market. While that remains its core service, the recently public company has loftier ambitions. “One of the things I often say is we’re trying to make Sesame Street for grown-ups,” says Timothy Shey, the company’s vice president of studios and content.
Inching toward that goal, Duolingo unveiled a diverse roster of characters last year that appear throughout the platform’s courses. And now, instead of using generic text-to-speech (TTS) audio for language lessons, each of Duolingo’s characters has its own distinctive voice, as well as a backstory.
“One of the elements of great storytelling is great characters,” Shey says. “We were looking at things like sitcoms or shows like Sesame Street where there’s a cast of characters that you really connect with and engage with, and it gives you a reason to come back every day.”
Duolingo is synonymous with its mascot, Duo, the cheerful green owl whose persistent reminders that you’ve been slacking on your lessons became a series of memes around 2017. Seeing how the internet embraced Duo prompted Shey and his team to build out the Duolingo universe with human characters.
Lily is an emo teen who’s inexplicably best friends with bubbly Zari. Eddy is a thirtysomething single dad to his 8-year-old son, Junior. Vikram formerly worked in finance but quit his job to become a baker. Oscar is a gay art teacher who “relates to art better than he does to people.” There are nine characters so far with a wide range of races, ages, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations.
Emily Chiu, senior creative producer at Duolingo, explains that in addition to having international representation, which makes sense for an app that offers 40 distinct languages to learn, creating relationships among the characters is also a shortcut for storytelling. “Some of our stories can only be like a hundred words, which is a huge limitation for storytelling,” she says. “But if you know the characters and their relationships, then there’s really no need to explain quite as much.”
On top of narrative context, the team at Duolingo believes giving characters their own voices could aid in the learning process. Prior to the latest update, courses used generic TTS audio for all characters, meaning 8-year old Junior sounded the same as Oscar, who’s in his 40s.
“It might be unintentionally funny,” Shey says, “but how much better would it be if it sounded like Junior?”
Duolingo hired casting director Ivy Isenberg (Call of Duty, Robot Chicken) to find voice actors to play each character—but that presented a series of challenges. For TTS to work, the input audio has to sound relatively flat. Instead of speaking with normal inflections and variations in tone, each word has to be stated evenly.
That said, the voice actors still had to make their voices fit their characters. One line in a Duolingo course is “I’m sick, but I did not vomit.” For Zari, a character who Chiu describes as someone who’s all “sunshine and lollipops and rainbows,” the prompt for the voice actor was, “Say this like you’re convincing a teacher that you’re well enough to go on a field trip,” Chiu says. Or if it’s a positive line such as, “This is my greatest treasure, my family” but 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 direction of, ‘Say everything like your mom is forcing you to say it.’”
Duolingo is banking on that attention to detail with the characters to create an even stronger connection with its audience. Shey notes that even before the rollout of these distinct voices, users would tweet things like “Duolingo stories are my favorite TV show” based solely on the characters’ interactions. “We know they’re keying in on what we’re trying to do,” Shey says. “We’re really trying to play on tropes from animation and sitcoms where there are simple relationships that you can build, hopefully, in an infinite number of stories.”
“If we’re really going to make language learning something that everyone does every day, then we’re going to have to make it as fun as the apps they use every day,” Shey continues. “So our competition isn’t other language-learning apps. It’s things like YouTube, Netflix, and the places that they’re spending their time.”
But, in terms of creating a cinematic universe of Duolingo characters, Shey says they’re trying not to get ahead of themselves. “It’s probably still a small core of our learners that even know these characters’ names,” he says. “Our ambitions were fairly simple in the beginning: Can we make characters that people will like?” Knowing that’s been the case so far, Shey can envision these characters surfacing in other places across Duolingo, possibly including the company’s forthcoming math-learning app.
By putting storytelling at the forefront, Duolingo is slowly building a catalog of intellectual property that would undoubtedly be turbocharged by the company going public earlier this month—all of which is paving the way toward a familiar street. “We have this really broad ambition: We’re a platform and a tech company, but we also are creating original content from all of our lessons,” Shey says. “We’re still building that core competency of great storytelling, but we aspire to be the best. We aspire to iconic things like Sesame.”