Languages do not become endangered peacefully. Duolingo’s efforts to teach such languages have entangled the company in often fraught historical contexts.
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.