My Thoughts on Duolingo
As Middlebury’s lone Esperantist, I’m overall a pretty big fan of Duolingo. I may have shed a tear the day I finally got my 365-day streak in Esperanto. Though Duolingo’s gamification approach to language is certainly not perfect, there’s no doubt that it can really fuel language learning. Daily practice on the app meant that I could actually hold a conversation when I went down to the Esperantist meet-up in Burlington.
Nevertheless, I am well aware of the ridiculousness of constructed languages like Esperanto, Klingon, and High Valyrian having their own courses while actual languages–especially endangered, indigenous languages of the Americas–stay in incubation for years.
Duolingo apologists say it’s all about interest. If there’s more drive from speakers and learners, the course will be launched faster, and Duolingo will get more revenue. And everyone knows Esperantists, as well as Star Trek and Game of Thrones fans, are passionate. When it came to the construction of their courses, they had the volunteers (with seemingly endless time!) to slog through translations.
These languages also wield economic power. High Valyrian, for example, came out in anticipation of the premiere of Game of Thrones’ seventh season. Half a million Game of Thrones’ fans study the language, bringing in lots of revenue for Duolingo. In fact, the language currently has more learners than ten other languages, including Czech, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Swahili. On the other hand, the indigenous North American language Navajo is Duolingo’s least studied language for English speakers.
That being said, it’s apparently not all about money for Duolingo. They have expressed that they want to help preserve the indigenous languages of the Americas. However, besides Navajo, the only other indigenous American language offered by Duolingo is Guaraní for Spanish Speakers.
Recently, Duolingo has made some changes to their course creation process. They just announced that they will begin paying their volunteers, which will probably attract collaboration from indigenous speakers who couldn’t otherwise afford to lend their knowledge to Duolingo. In addition, Duolingo now has two indigenous languages in the incubator for Spanish Speakers: Yucatec, and K’iche’. Yucatec, an indigenous Mexican language, has an estimated 770,000 speakers. However, the course has only four contributors, and is stuck in Phase 1. K’iche’ is spoken by around 1 million people in Guatemala. It is also in Phase 1, but apparently has no contributors.
If Duolingo was actually committed to the preservation of indigenous languages, I believe they could have quite the impact. Language revitalization, visibility, and prestige would all be positively affected by having a course on Duolingo.
Of course, I know Duolingo does face difficult decisions when creating gamified courses for these languages. There are often many different spoken varieties and orthographies, and picking just one to teach is always a political choice.
Constructed languages are easier in that way. After all, they don’t have multiple varieties. They’re not actually real. They never evolve.1 These constructed languages are essentially fun little games meant to be sold to happy consumers. Real, living languages are a different story.
But honestly, that’s just another excuse. Duolingo needs to get their act together if they are actually committed to supporting indigenous languages. In addition to having few courses for indigenous languages, the ones they do teach are often incomplete. When Duolingo released Navajo and Hawaiian on Indigenous People’s Day in 2020, I checked some forums and found out that multiple users complained about the quality of the courses. There were multiple missing audio files, no instructions on how to pronounce the language, and few grammatical notes. Maybe Duolingo just needed to get the courses in before Indigenous People’s Day; maybe it was all posturing.
Despite everything, I believe that many people at Duolingo do want to support the teaching of indigenous languages. They just need to get their priorities straight. I suggest that they simply use all that revenue collected from Star Trek fans learning Klingon to get indigenous languages out of incubation and to actually make them full-fledged courses. Now that Duolingo is paying their volunteers, I believe that the company could be a powerful force in the effort to protect indigenous languages.
But they have to actually make an effort.
 Before any Esperantists get on my case, I am well aware of Esperanto’s literary, musical, and other cultural traditions. I also know that there are native Esperantists. I’ll admit that Esperanto is sort of a living language. But also, come on guys, we know it’s not a natural language. It is highly regulated. It is not supposed to evolve into different varieties.
As Middlebury’s lone Esperantist, I’m overall a pretty big fan of Duolingo. I may have shed a tear the day I finally got my 365-day streak in Esperanto. Though Duolingo’s gamification approach to language is certainly not perfect, there’s no doubt that it can really fuel language learning. Daily practice on the app meant that…