Duolingo enables English speakers to learn Hebrew for free

Duolingo enables English speakers to learn Hebrew for free

Duolingo, the free language-learning platform that has attracted more than 150 million users, recently released a Hebrew for English speakers course.

Since the June 23 release, more than 53,000 students have registered to learn Hebrew with Duolingo, said Zan Gilani, marketing associate and spokesperson at the Pittsburgh-based company.

“We expect to help a great many Jewish-Americans looking to connect with their culture and families,” added Gina Gotthilf, vice president of growth at Duolingo.

The 60-employee company, which in March announced its move from Shadyside to East Liberty, was co-founded in 2011 by Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, and Severin Hacker, von Ahn’s doctoral student.

The pair developed Duolingo by trying to blend technology and education, said Gilani.

With an approach that learning should be “fun, personalized and free,” Duolingo is achieving something never before accomplished, he said. “The biggest problem with learning anything is staying motivated.” But by users committing just five minutes a day, Duolingo promises to engage learners through game-like lessons that are personalized to provide immediate feedback.

The theory is that such educational tactics, combined with the service’s zero-cost approach, keeps registered learners motivated while attracting new ones.

“The thing that makes Duolingo so popular is it is so interactive and makes learning a language into a game,” said Gilani.

The Hebrew course is one of 27 language courses available to English speakers. Other language courses include Welsh, Esperanto and Swahili. Future courses include Romanian, Yiddish and even Klingon.

As demonstrated in Duolingo’s online incubator, courses exist in three phases: Phase 1 includes courses not yet released, such as French for Turkish speakers, Czech for English speakers and Guarani for Spanish speakers. Phase 2 includes courses released in Beta, such as Spanish for Chinese speakers, Swedish for Arabic speakers and Vietnamese for English speakers. Hebrew for English speakers is currently in Phase 2.

Phase 3, which is the final phase in Duolingo’s incubator, includes courses that have graduated from Beta. Examples of such courses are English for Russian speakers, Catalan for Spanish speakers and Italian for French speakers.

Each course takes about a year for contributors to make, said Gilani. Contributors consist of bilingual volunteers from around the world. The six contributors to the Hebrew program stem from Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom and a location near Spain.

Registered users of Duolingo can apply to become contributors. Once selected, contributors help translate sentences that become the course curriculum for the given language.

Enthusiasm for the project is key, said Gilani. “We have passionate contributors around the world. That’s how we have been able to get to almost 65 languages.”

While Hebrew for English speakers was requested by Duolingo users years ago, it only recently launched. Part of the delay was that easier languages were tackled first, said Gilani. “Originally, we limited ourselves to teaching languages that were close to English and employed Roman script, but soon we expanded.”

The first departure was Ukrainian. With an alphabet consisting of Cyrillic letters, Ukrainian proved harder than earlier languages such as Italian, French and German for English speakers to read. Despite such challenges, the Ukrainian for English speakers course, which is also in Beta, has registered more than 413,000 learners.

Hebrew posed other challenges.

“Linguistically, it’s pretty far away from English,” noted Gilani. “This is also the first language we taught that is right to left and not left to right.”  

Through its incubating process, which remains free for users, Duolingo would like to welcome more languages, learners and volunteer contributors.

While the ultimate outcome is imaginable, its arrival date is indefinite.

“I think we would like to have every language in the world,” said Gilani. “That’s the dream. We are not going to have an Arabic for Finnish speakers course soon, but it’s something to aspire to.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.   

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