On Duolingo’s Blog

A quick note on how the Duolingo blog has rapidly turned into something brilliantly interesting and useful.

They have posts on evergreen issues that language learners will have to understand at one point or another, such as what is grammatical gender?

The term grammatical “gender” can be a little misleading, because it sounds like it should have something to do with human gender, or men and women, or something along those lines. And with names like “masculine” and “feminine,” it makes sense that learners look for this meaning behind grammatical gender! But really, our English word “gender” has the same root as the word “genre”: those grammatical genders are simply noun categories.

There are posts that are more about the histories of languages and dialects, such as where did English come from?

Around the 5th century, several groups of people from northern Europe (modern-day Germany and Denmark especially) moved to the southern part of that island. They were called the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, and they were Germanic, so they were different culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically from the Celts and Romans already settled there. It’s not entirely clear what the dynamic was between the newcomers and the other groups, but in the end English (the language of the Angles and the Saxons) became the predominant language of Engla lond (the land of the Angles). Today we call that language variety Old English.

There have also been a series of posts about Ukraine. What learners need to know about Ukrainian explains the differences between Ukranian and Russian but introduces how politics and identity interact with language:

In Russian, there are two words that can mean “in”: в (v) and на (na). The difference between them is, essentially, what words you use them with: you use в for a place that has recognized borders, like a city or a building, and на for territories without borders, like fields and dependent regions. For example, you use в when you’re talking about Russia, the U.S., or England, but use на when talking about the West or the South. Historically, на has been used when saying “in Ukraine” — a preposition use that tacitly implies that Ukraine is not a country of its own. In recent times, however, there has been a push to use в with Ukraine, instead of на; subsequently, which preposition a speaker uses has become a sign of their political sympathies, with Russians who have sympathies towards Ukraine deliberately using в and those who minimize Ukraine’s right to statehood using на.

How power struggles, political upheaval, and global crises cause languages to evolve covers War, power and colonisation:

But new languages also emerged in Africa, too, on the other side of the Transatlantic slave trade. White colonizers seized power in many parts of Africa and their languages, including English, German, and Portuguese, came with them. Like in the Americas, this forced language contact resulted in many pidgins and creoles, like Cameroonian Pidgin English, a language spoken in Cameroon—which is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world! In Cameroon, German colonizers arrived and built plantations, and enslaved Cameroonians were separated into groups that didn’t share a common language. Cameroonian Pidgin English emerged as the lingua franca (kind of a common language) for Cameroonians and colonizers, and the language became the standard way to communicate for Cameroonians of many language backgrounds. Even when English-speaking missionaries arrived in the 1800s, Cameroonian Pidgin English was the language they had to learn to communicate with Cameroonians!

Duolingo is a very data-driven company, famous for running a large number of A/B and multivariate tests on its product. I can log into the same account to study the same language on my phone, tablet or computer and I will have three subtly different experiences. A feature here or there is missing. A button is labelled differently or is placed elsewhere. I may have a different ‘target’ for the day; I may be rewarded in different ways for achieving it.

Duolingo is also a public company and it has to keep providing value for its shareholders. This means every effort needs to go into user signups and retention. The reason a button might be renamed or a reward rolled out to all users is because it was demonstrated during a test to improve retention by a fraction of a percentage point.

So while I enjoy reading and learning from these posts, I worry that they’ll suddenly stop when some executive at Duolingo decides that they don’t help the company’s bottom line. This might sound like an odd conclusion to draw, but the company recently removed their entire set of user forums and set the in-app sentence discussions to read-only. This is a decision that makes no sense to me; I hope it pushed a dial on some dashboard somewhere in the right direction.

For all Duolingo’s faults I do enjoy the service and happily pony up for the paid tier. You cannot use Duolingo to gain “fluency” (whatever that means—very much a question for another time) in any given language. But for the larger, more well-supported courses, such as English to Spanish and English to French, you can gain an excellent grounding, and I applaud the work of the Duolingo team (plus, importantly, volunteers) in providing resources for endangered and lesser-spoken languages.