In October last year, Meena Viswanath, a 31-year-old civil engineer from Berkeley, California, joined a small team of volunteers who were developing a Yiddish course on Duolingo, the free language learning app with over 300 million users. Having grown up in the only Yiddish-speaking family in a majority English-speaking New Jersey neighborhood, the prospect of broadcasting her mother tongue to a global network of students was exciting.
Throughout October, Viswanath and three other contributors regularly met to discuss the curriculum over a shared Slack channel. They had a target to get the course up and running towards the end of 2020, and to begin, progress was solid. But then they hit a roadblock.
Yiddish, which combines elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic, is a language of many dialects corresponding to the different regions of Europe where they emerged. The differences in pronunciation and grammar between these dialects are subtle, but for a native speaker they carry meaningful information about identity, culture and religious affiliation.
If you hear someone speaking Central European Yiddish, Viswanath explained to me, it would be a relatively safe bet that they are from a Hassidic community in Brooklyn. Whereas a speaker of Northern European Yiddish is more likely to have been taught at a secular university or school.
So whose dialect was going to be digitally archived as the Yiddish dialect?
Uncertain how to navigate this impasse, the team drafted a poll and posted it online, inviting others to vote. It triggered a community-wide debate: some felt that the Northern dialect, which closely matches the written form, was most appropriate. Others argued that Central Yiddish, which is most widely spoken, made more sense. This was further heightened by a fraught history. There were 13 million Yiddish speakers before the Holocaust; today the number hovers at around half a million. Teaching a dialect, therefore, is seen by many as a defiant homage to what was lost.
“People felt like this was not just a question about a dialect, but a political, socio-cultural question,” Viswanath said. “And we realized that we were going to make a lot of people angry, no matter what we picked.”
Along with Hawaiian, Scottish Gaelic and Navajo, Yiddish is one of several minority languages in development phase on the Duolingo platform. The company, which was recently valued at $700m, views the inclusion of languages with fewer speakers as part of a broader mission to become the most complete language education platform online.
For dominant languages like English and Spanish, which are highly standardized and deeply entrenched in global culture, Duolingo’s simple, game-ified approach to pedagogy – Learn Spanish in Five Minutes a Day! – makes sense. For minority languages, however, language education is often not just a matter of mastering a vocabulary and a grammar, but of immersing oneself in a culture, a history, a way of life.
Lessons on Duolingo are a collage of colorful progress bars, ticks and crosses, cartoon characters cheering you on, doling out small hits of dopamine as you click your way to linguistic mastery. This game-like approach has been at the center of the app since it launched in 2012, and proved popular from the start.
To begin, users only had access to lessons in a handful of major European languages, but as the polyglot user base ballooned, so too did demand for greater linguistic diversity. Hiring translators was expensive, so the company invited dedicated users to participate in course creation as volunteers – crowdsourcing for language education.
As well as adding to existing courses, contributors could recommend languages of their choosing, meaning that smaller, lesser-known languages were added early on. Irish, for example, was added in 2014 and was a huge success. The Irish language is spoken by approximately 1.8 million people worldwide; there are now 920,000 active learners on Duolingo.
After seeing the popularity of Irish Duolingo, Ciaran Iòsaph MacAonghais submitted an application to create a Scottish Gaelic Duolingo course. MacAonghais, a 28-year-old Gaelic teacher in the West Highlands town of Oban, was brought up among a family of proud native speakers. As a teenager, he stopped engaging with the language and then went to Edinburgh University to study English literature. But before becoming a father at the age of 20, he found himself drawn back to the language of his childhood.
He transferred to Celtic studies, and shortly after moved back home to teach the heritage tongue. “I realized that knowing the language gives you a richer picture of the place that you’re from – you suddenly see Scotland in full color,” he told me. “So, when I saw the Irish Duolingo had almost a million subscribers, I thought that the same could happen for our language.”
Last June, MacAonghais got an email from Duolingo administrators inviting him to lead the course design for Scottish Gaelic. Over an intense eight-month period he and a small team wrote a curriculum and recorded more than 7,000 audio clips of people speaking the language, including the voices of MacAonghais’s uncle and grandmother.
The course launched on 30 November last year, coinciding with St Andrew’s Day, and already has 186,000 active learners. “To see this many people learning Gaelic, potentially listening to my gran, that’s really affirming,” he said.
Scottish Gaelic is just one endangered language among thousands. Every two weeks or so, the sole speaker of a language dies, often taking with them millennia of culture condensed in their unique lexicon and grammar.
Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, linguists predict that nearly half are in danger of extinction by the end of this century.
According to Conor Walsh, a product manager at Duolingo, the company sees itself as having a role to play in the preservation of endangered languages, offering a ready-made digital platform for motivated members of a linguistic community, like MacAonghais, to take the lead. “We know that to speak an endangered language is a badge of honor,” Walsh told me. “We want the Duolingo courses to reflect that.”
But languages do not become endangered peacefully, and the diminution of native speakers is often embedded in histories of colonialism and suppression. For many communities who speak their tongue within a dominant culture, linguistic education is thus tied up with political resistance. And when Duolingo adds endangered languages to its platform, the company inevitably becomes entangled in this historical context.
When the Hawaiian Duolingo course launched in 2018, for example, some native speakers felt that it was too short and basic. Kū Kahakalau, a renowned native Hawaiian educator, told CNN that the course was “too baby, it’s too simple”.
Given Hawaiian history, this is a serious charge. After illegally overthrowing the Hawaiian government in 1893, the US administration banned the native language from school instruction as part of the broader cultural oppression of the native populations. Generations of young people were denied access to their cultural heritage, until a community-led renaissance in the 1970s, which focused on linguistic immersion and education to re-engage with what was lost. To this day, linguistic education is seen as a vital part of a broader cultural revitalization.
We feel the weight of the responsibility … After all, this is our language. This is our peopleMeena Viswanath
More content has since been added to the course, which now has half a million active learners. But according to Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier, a contributor to the Hawaiian Duolingo course and a longtime educator at Kamehameha Schools, which emphasizes Hawaiian language and culture, the original release was somewhat limited partly because the volunteers were encouraged by Duolingo administrators to have it completed for World Indigenous Day on 8 October 2018. “When I look back we should have said no and taken more time,” she told me. “Our target group has always been our own community, and our intention was to teach our own.”
Another language launched on Indigenous People’s Day in 2018 was Diné, which is spoken by the Navajo people. As well as being significantly shorter than other courses on the platform, there was a noticeable absence of quality sound recordings. According to one Navajo educator I spoke to, the diminished learning material made the Navajo course feel tokenistic for some.
“I know that some Navajo who heard of the Duolingo course for Navajo were unhappy stating that it is our language that the holy people, Dįyįn Dįnę’ę́ [God], gave to us,” he said. “Others felt it was an invitation to non-Navajo people to learn Navajo for ‘bragging rights’ and for reasons of ego.”
The team at Duolingo are acutely aware of the sensitivities involved with developing a course for an endangered language, which is why they invite community members and native speakers to develop the courses. Walsh, who has studied endangered language policy at Harvard and the National University of Ireland, told me that when a complex issue arises – like which Yiddish dialect is appropriate – administrators allow community members to make a decision together, without imposing their own opinion.
“We’re not taking any political sides,” he said. “They ultimately need to decide what is right.”
The volunteers that I spoke to, who are all deeply engaged in their own linguistic communities, do not see Duolingo as a catch-all solution to language education, but one tool among many that can be harnessed to revitalize broader cultural expression. “Duolingo will not replace person-to-person teaching, but it can offer a way for beginners to learn and feel comfortable,” Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “It might get a someone to a place where they want to reach out and engage more.”
Viswanath agrees, and is particularly optimistic about how Duolingo attracts younger students. “They seem to have figured out an addictive type of learning that appeals to a younger generation.”
She and the other volunteer Yiddish-speakers have now collected the votes, more than 4,000 in total, and are slowly coming to a decision about what dialect to proceed with. “As you can imagine, there has been a lot of back and forth between us, and we feel the weight of the responsibility,” she said. “After all, this is our language. This is our people.”