Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

A Duolingo Course in the Works

Sorry for not having posted in so long! I’ve been very busy with studying and schoolwork in general, so I haven’t been the blog as much as I should. As I mentioned in a previous post, I thought it would be a great idea to create a Duolingo Course for minority languages. As it happens, for the past two months, I’ve been writing a Kannada Duolingo course curriculum, and I recently finished the first draft of it. Hopefully, the beta will be up sometime this year, assuming we can get clearance to actually start the course.

For those of you who do not know, Kannada is a South Indian Dravidian language, related to Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil. It is spoken in the state of Karnataka, India as an official language alongside Hindi and English. The primary focus of this course is not for Indians living in India, but rather expatriate families living abroad. When I was growing up, there were very few opportunities to learn my mother tongue aside from my parents. Many parents wish to impart their mother tongue to their children that grow up in the United States, and try to send them to classes that will help them learn. However, sometimes, the only classes available are non-secular (as was the case in my area), to which some Indian parents would rather not send their children. My effort to create a Kannada Duolingo course is to provide a secular alternative to provide Kannada language education to Kannadiga Americans as well as other Kannadigas born outside of India.

I can’t exactly reveal all the details, but I would greatly appreciate it if you can share this post so that it reaches a lot of people, including interested contributors to the course! If you want to contribute to the Kannada Duolingo course, apply to be a moderator at https://incubator.duolingo.com/, by clicking “Contribute to a Course”. This way, we can speed along this project. It is unfortunate that the staff of Duolingo have actually stated: “the reason [they] don’t teach a lot of Asian languages is we are now sticking to languages that don’t require explaining a whole new alphabet”, said Gina Gotthilf. Also, “The choice of languages being added to the incubator depends on a lot of factors including Duolingo’s internal knowledge of them”according to the Duolingo wiki. I can assume that Kannada will be more easily done, since Hindi is already in the incubator, and they are teaching the alphabet. I highly encourage the Kannada Kootas of the United States to come together and increase demand for the creation of a course for our mother tongue. I’m currently in New York City, but my home is in the Bay Area of California, so if any of the Kootas are interested in contacting me, I’ll be in one of those two areas. To contact me, you can use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page.

I will be trying to write more posts soon, so please keep reading! Don’t forget to share this post wherever you can!

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.

It’s All Latin and Greek to Me

Hello and Happy Thanksgiving (which is odd, considering we’ve never done it before in my family)! Today, I’m going to discuss the classical languages of the world. For language to be “classical,” as described by George L. Hart at UC Berkeley, “it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.” Personally, I would say that classical languages should have also have had a relatively large sphere of influence in the ancient world, and “overwhelming significance as carriers of culture, as Edward Sapir describes in Language (1921). The, “ancient world,” is essentially the world during and before the 17th century, as I understand it. Sapir distills the classical languages of the world down to Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Chinese, all of which conform to Hart’s description of classical languages.

Classical languages are unique in that not only is there a great deal of extant literature written in these languages, but these languages continue to be of great importance to the world’s living languages. Sanskrit is still taught in schools in India as a core subject. Sanskrit is used to supplement students’ abilities to read and write in their own languages, because many languages in India borrow greatly from Sanskrit, with the exclusion of Tamil. Students can understand and learn vocabulary in more advanced works, even if they’ve never actually seen the word before, because they have rudimentary if not decent understanding of their languages’ classical roots. Latin and Greek, to a degree, occupy a similar position in Western societies. Middle Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Classical Chinese, are used as frameworks of study of modern varieties of Chinese, and Classical Arabic is regarded as sacrosanct in the Arab world, though I’m not certain of it being a focus of academic study in the Middle East.

Relatively recently, the study of classical languages has become declined considerably in modern society. Latin and Greek are not common courses of study in high schools, despite the fact that standardized tests such as the SAT require students to learn many words of Latin and Greek origin. I think that they should be mandatory courses, for no more than one year, two at maximum. It certainly would improve the reading and writing abilities of students in their English classes, and make foreign language classes much easier.

This was a pretty brief piece this time. Feel free to share your thoughts here, and share it with your friends!