The Duolingo learning app is adding a new language to its offerings on Tuesday: Yiddish.
It is the 40th language to be added to the app and a language that builds on efforts to include languages that are not as common as they once were.
“We are really excited to be able to step into linguistic diversity,” said Myra Awodey, Senior Duolingos Community Specialist. “Not only by preserving languages, but also by helping to teach languages that are sort of on the verge of retraction or shrinking.”
The Yiddish language has experienced a sharp decline since its heyday decades ago. It is difficult to know the final number of Yiddish speakers in the world, but Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, said estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million, up from around 11 million the previous day. of World War II.
And although the language can often be heard as “Yinglish,” a mixture of English and Yiddish, the Duolingo course is intended to help people move beyond phrases they may already know.
“It’s not just six words that are used as a punchline in a joke,” said Meena Viswanath, one of the creators of the Duolingo course. “And there is the grammar and the spelling and you can be strict about it.”
Viswanath is the granddaughter of Mordkhe Schaechter, who was a prominent Yiddish linguist and professor at Columbia University. His mother published a Yiddish dictionary and his brother translated Harry Potter into Yiddish.
She grew up in a modern Orthodox Jewish family in New Jersey. While Yiddish was not normally spoken in this community, his family were heavily involved in the movement to pass it on.
“I am raising my two children to speak Yiddish,” Viswanath said. “My ideal world is one where there are more and more people to speak Yiddish with.”
Duolingo, founded in 2011, remains among the most popular language learning apps and has regularly added new languages, many of which linguists believe could eventually disappear. Her Irish course launched in 2014. Awodey said the comments inspired them to do more.
Awodey said the Irish course reached over a million learners in its first year.
“It was a defining moment for us,” she said.
Yiddish is still spoken in Hasidic Jewish communities around the world, but not commonly in secular Jewish communities. Yet the words and phrases are passed on within these families.
Shandler said Yiddish is known as a “heritage language” that people often study to connect with family histories.
“You now have younger generations saying, ‘This language is important to me as part of my heritage, and I’m going to learn it,'” said Shandler.
This is the case of Zalman Orloff, 24, whose goal in learning Yiddish is to read the newspapers of his late great-grandfathers.
While many entries are in English, the first are in Yiddish.
“We didn’t translate them, and now all of the Yiddish speakers in our family have sadly passed away,” Orloff said.
Orloff said he was eager to try the Duolingo lessons.
“I think Duolingo is really good,” he said. “I’ve used it before. I think it’s an incredible opportunity for Yiddish to gain in importance.”
Jake Millhouse, 34, is a graduate student in Jewish studies at Gratz College in Philadelphia who is currently learning Yiddish at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He said he and his fiance wanted to make the language part of their home life. As soon as we can start using it, that’s our plan.
He also wants to pass it on to his children.
“I want to make sure my kids really know Yiddish well,” Millhouse said. “It’s their birthright.”
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