Tuesday, April 06, 2021
When Meena Viswanath signed on more than two years ago to help Duolingo, the world's largest language learning app, create its first Yiddish course, she knew it wouldn't be easy.
But Viswanath, the daughter and granddaughter of famed Yiddish scholars who speaks Yiddish at home with her children, assumed most of the difficulties would be technical. She wasn't prepared for the challenge of blending the academic Yiddish she knows with the everyday dialect spoken by her Hasidic colleagues on the project.
The result of those negotiations will be visible when the course goes live on April 6, tapping into the groundswell of interest in the language spoken by at least 500,000 Jews around the world and studied by others.
"We used mostly the spelling and grammar that's a little bit more formalized among the secular Yiddishists," Viswanath said. "But then when we recorded the audio, we used the pronunciation that is used in the vernacular among students, specifically in Borough Park in Brooklyn and so forth."
Launched in 2012 to help Spanish-speaking immigrants access English education, Duolingo now offers 40 languages on a free app that condenses language learning into what many, its founder included, have compared to a game. Users accumulate points and climb leaderboards of fellow "players" for finishing lessons and practicing every day. Its cast of cartoonish characters, including its mascot owl aptly named Duo, adds to the fun atmosphere.
The company is taking the dopamine boost to a new level for promoting the Yiddish course: Those who start on its launch date can get a free bagel courtesy of Duolingo at a few participating shops across the country, including Katz's Deli in New York and Manny's Cafeteria in Chicago — as long as the users place their orders in Yiddish.
The new course comes amid an explosion of interest in Yiddish instruction during the pandemic. The Workers Circle classes last summer had 305 students from 20 countries and 32 states, a 65 percent jump from the previous year. Meanwhile, YIVO's Uriel Weinreich Summer Program saw attendance increase by 60 percent to 120 people — and then five times as many students enrolled for the winter program compared to the previous year.
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