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.

Why Minority Languages Matter

A lot of people will question learning minority languages such as Catalán, Navajo, or Irish. Many believe it is a waste of time, and that language death is inevitable. However, for the languages already mentioned, as well as several others, it is well within that community and other people’s capacity to help revitalize usage. Tom Scott makes a valid point about how if we let minority languages die, there are certain aspects of the human experience and capabilities of the brain that we let die with them. You can watch his video here: Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In the English Language.

Language is intimately linked to the way we live our lives. It is theorized that language evolved out of a method for human mothers to communicate with their children, and as human society became increasingly complex, involving multiple individuals in the process of raising children, it eventually became a medium for communicating with one another. Another hypothesis is that language is a vocal manifestation of one’s ideas. Ideas are apparent to oneself, in one’s mind, but not necessarily in comprehensible language. The idea is that humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings regarding things, and that is why language evolved. Personally, the theory regarding mothers is a lot more plausible. There’s a reason, “motherese,” exists. However, these two hypotheses do point out crucial facts about the development of language. Languages have features based on the particular needs of a people in a certain place.

For example, the aboriginal language in Australia does not have words for left, right, up, or down, but rather assigns cardinal directions. As a result, most of the speakers of this language have an intuitive sense of direction..Some have proposed that due to the lack of landmarks for people to judge physical position in the Australian wilderness, language there had to have less arbitrary ways of describing direction. In a place like the Americas, the landscape is varied enough for people to judge direction based of off the various shapes of the land, and therefore, the language there can assign arbitrary directions, or at least directions revolve around a given point. The ability to distinguish direction in absolute terms is very useful, and demonstrates the capacity of the human brain to evaluate its surroundings as such. If this language dies out, we miss out on a generation of people who have this ability, and completely exclude it from the development of other people in the world.

Now, let’s look at a non-physical example. In Catalán, the construction no… pas is a nuanced one. It negates a predicate, and also indicates that this negation is contrary to a notion held by listener. This is a very useful feature, and is built into only a few words. It is for this reason that some non-native speakers of English can be very verbose, because they’re trying to express an equivalent sentiment of what might be a very short sentence in their native language. Implications and nuance are very important in some languages, especially in minority languages, where they can be unique to those languages. By letting such a language die, you allow a possibly more effective and expressive mode of communication die as well.

Perhaps the most grave loss in the process of language death is the loss of a culture and people. Language, as stated before, contains a great deal of history and knowledge behind the way people communicate. John McWhorter argues that language death and the loss of a culture are not necessarily linked. I refute this point, because of the reasons listed above. Skills and modes of expression that are exclusive to a particular language are part of a culture. A people lose a great deal of themselves in not being able to speak their language. There are things they will not be able to understand or express. Sure, they can maintain their traditions, but the meaning and history of those traditions is lost outside of the native language. By working to revitalize minority languages, even only within their indigenous areas, we maintain another part of the human experience. If it happened with Hebrew due to the work of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, it can happen for any language at any time!

Languages are different for a reason. The subtle nuances and implications of certain words and phrases can often be lost in translation. There’s a reason that people who read manga in English will miss much of the symbolism, hidden meanings, jokes, puns, or wordplays that the original Japanese text might have. This is why I believe that translation can never do real justice to having a proper conversation in the language being translated. In a world with infinitely varied settings and circumstances, knowing other languages that express certain sentiments more accurately is paramount.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a full article. I haven’t really been doing much lately except writing language guides and subtitling Khan Academy videos (which you should do, if you know a language that you think people would benefit from having subtitles in).  I’d appreciate any comments on this, so feel free to leave some!