Duolingo: Hope for Minority Languages?

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my friends about the reason some languages die out or fade into obscurity among certain populations. In the United States, many children of immigrants do not grow up speaking the language of their parents. This can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including a fear of persecution, a desire for the children to have better competence in English, or the idea that the mother tongue is “useless”. I’m not going to discuss these reasons at length; that’s for another post. The topic at hand is the use of Duolingo to teach children languages. It has a reasonably entertaining interface with which children can interact and learn. A few different non-mainstream languages are already on Duolingo, including Polish, Norwegian, and Turkish.

Duolingo’s presence as a language-learning application has great significance for those attempting to protect minority languages. The Incubator function allows open source contributions to develop courses that people can use to learn. If motivated and enabled speakers of, say, Quechua, we’re so inclined, they might be able to build a course. As mentioned in Ineptitude’s post on Duolingo and Conlangs, there is nothing to stop contributors so long as there is demand and people willing to build these courses. For the purposes of reviving and protecting languages, this is a great tool, because many children across the world are leading lives more and more integrated with technology. By introducing children to Duolingo from an early age, people can promote language literacy and proficiency in children greatly. For immigrant parents, it could mean the difference between their children being disconnected from or more in touch with their culture. 

I am actually planning to discuss such a project with my regional Kannada Koota, which is a sort of convention or organization for Kannada speakers in the United States. Their mission is to preserve and promote the Kannada language. If young Kannadiga Americans are able to learn Kannada through an entertaining app that fits in well with their lifestyle, it will be highly beneficial to the preservation of our language abroad.

Minority languages without writing systems or formalized traditions are often said to be disadvantaged by the advancement of technology, but that doesn’t have to be true if people are motivated to protect and preserve them. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

Duolingo and Conlangs: Some Brief Thoughts

Recently I was having a conversation with Rizael regarding Duolingo having a course for Klingon in their incubator. He shared the opinion that it was useless and took away from Duolingo’s purpose of teaching people languages in order to foster worldwide communication. He also went on to state the opinion that the Esperanto course had no particular place on Duolingo either, as so few people use Esperanto anyway. While I don’t disagree that learning these languages may not necessarily be worth one’s time from a utility standpoint, I do think that proponents of these languages have every right to have a Duolingo course.

We can consider this from the angle that Duolingo is nothing more than a platform for language courses. In other words, it’s not the people at Duolingo itself who build the courses, but individuals and groups who wish to promote their languages. Duolingo’s Incubator actually has an application to submit a language, and as far as I can tell, puts courses in the incubator as per popular demand and availability of users who can contribute to the course. It’s for that reason that a course for Irish Gaelic has been released, and a course for Welsh is in the works, despite these languages not necessarily being “useful” in the traditional sense: very few people actively speak either language. Therefore, I see no real problem in Duolingo merely hosting courses for Klingon and Esperanto, as there is clearly a subset of the population who wishes to promote and learn these languages, and it in no way takes away from the development of courses for natural language. While I don’t necessarily believe it is worth speaking a constructed language, those who speak a language have every right to use and promote it in the ways they see fit.

What do all of you think? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

“Language as a Human Right”

I recently wrote an article for NYU’s Journal of Human Rights, which you can read here: http://issuu.com/nyuhumanus/docs/jhr_fall_2015_complete/36. If you’re interested in reading it, the topic concerns the legitimacy of language as a human right. I hope you find it interesting and edifying!