I took Duolingo’s new Yiddish course for a test drive. Here’s what I found.
Read this article in Yiddish
In nearly eight years of covering Yiddish events for the Forverts, I have never seen anything approaching the level of excitement accompanying the release of Duolingo’s Yiddish course, which will go live Tuesday, April 6.
Ever since work began on the course five years ago, reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Duolingo’s own forums have been inundated with inquiries verging on demands from Yiddish lovers, language nerds and Duolingo superfans wanting to know when it will be ready. 9,500 students have already signed up.
When Duolingo announced that the big day would come in April, several people posted on reddit that they were so excited they couldn’t sleep. Not being one of the Duolingo’s 300 million users myself and knowing little about the free software besides occasionally seeing its mascot Duo, a spunky passive-aggressive owl, pop up in internet memes, I wanted to find out what the hype was about. So when a press agent asked if I would like to speak with the Yiddish course creators I not only jumped at the opportunity but put in a special request: to be given advance access to the course. Here’s what I found over eight hours of taking it for a test drive.
Although the course is significantly shorter than many of the site’s 39 other languages, Duolingo Yiddish is still massive. Altogether, it encompasses 70 sections called “skills,” with each skill featuring five levels. The 350 levels have three to six lessons each. With every lesson requiring at least five to seven minutes, the roughly 1,300 lessons will take a minimum of 250 hours for the average student to complete.
Myra Awodey, Duolingo’s Lead Community Specialist, told me that mastering all 70 skills would place the user near an A1 level according to the Common European Frame of Reference (CEFR), the model for measuring language proficiency used by Duolingo and many university language programs. A1 corresponds to roughly two semesters of introductory college language classes or as the CEFR notes, represents the “ability to understand and use very basic expressions to satisfy concrete needs.”
I think that might be underselling it. The course gives a thorough overview of Yiddish grammar. Taught through a series of exercises built like a video game to incentivize memorization, Duolingo Yiddish begins with standard greetings, home and food vocabulary and regular day-to-day topics from telling time to describing family members, shopping trips and vacations. Specifically Jewish vocabulary is introduced fairly late, with the first such lesson, on Shabbos, appearing about halfway through.
“We didn’t want to overwhelm them with too much Judaism at first,” Isac Polasak, 23, who along with his twin brother Israel, was a key contributor to the course, told me in Yiddish. “We don’t want them to feel like we’re trying to convert them. The thinking was that they’d get acquainted with the language and then learn more about the specifically Jewish elements as they progressed.”
Indeed, most of the course’s subject matter is decidedly quotidian. The shopping section, for instance, teaches the sentence “der kasirer rekhnt arayn dem shtayer” (the cashier includes the tax) while students unhappy with their haircut will learn to say, “der sherer hot gemakht a balagan fun mayne hor” (the barber made a mess of my hair).
Jewish holiday vocabulary is explained via context. The lesson on Hanukkah, for instance, has the user translate the sentence “if the dreidel falls on hay, half is taken.” Passover customs are highlighted in sentences like “Der vayn iz far Eliyahu Hanovi” (the wine is for Elijah the Prophet), and users even learn the fir kashes or the Four Questions.
Duolingo is known for prompting students to translate funny and even bizarre sentences, and its Yiddish edition doesn’t disappoint. The sentence “di yidn zenen mid” (the Jews are tired) is destined to become a meme on Twitter and “mayn vayb iz keynmol nisht tsufridn” (my wife is never pleased) sounds like the opening of a classic albeit decidedly dated Borscht Belt routine. “Ver voynt in an ananas untern yam?” will get a laugh from many younger millennials who grew up watching “SpongeBob Square Pants.” It translates to the first line of that show’s theme song: “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
Despite the whimsy Duolingo uses to keep its users engaged, producing one of its language courses is no laughing matter. While computer programmers and linguists on Duolingo’s staff provided assistance, the bulk of the course was built by a team of volunteers who put thousands of hours into designing the lesson plans, writing the texts and recording audio.
Duolingo Yiddish’s “incubator stage” was launched some five years ago, but the course was effectively redesigned from scratch when a new group of volunteers took over the project in 2019. Before work could begin in earnest, the crew, made up of young native Yiddish-speakers who grew up in Hasidic and Yiddishist homes, had to decide what form of the language to teach. Yiddish courses and textbooks typically use a standardized dialect often called “YIVO Yiddish,” which is unfamiliar to the vast majority of contemporary Yiddish speakers, who hail from Hasidic communities. Israel and Isac Polasak, the project’s most active volunteers, grew up in a Satmar Hasidic community and wanted the course to focus on the dialect spoken by Brooklyn Hasidim. They soon hit a snag, however.
“I realized that we couldn’t make a course with Hasidic Yiddish because it wasn’t standardized,” Isac Polasak said. “It wasn’t a matter of better or worse. We just needed a standard to work with.”
The twins put out a call for volunteers who knew formal Yiddish grammar to join the project. Meena Viswanath, 32, a civil engineer and scion of a prominent Yiddishist family, saw their Facebook post and soon became the project’s grammar maven, editing the lessons and double checking spelling. [Full disclosure: Viswanath is a niece of Forverts editor Rukhl Schaechter and serves with me on the board of a Yiddish organization].
While all of the participants agreed to base the course on standard literary Yiddish, they reached an impasse when deciding on how the language should be pronounced. The Polasaks and other Hasidic volunteers wanted to go with a pronunciation that matched the Yiddish they learned at home while Viswanath and others wanted to teach the so-called “YIVO pronunciation” traditionally used in academic institutions because it more closely corresponds to standard Yiddish spelling. Unable to come up with a solution, the group decided to punt, releasing a survey in November 2019, which garnered 6,000 responses, with half of participants voting for the Hasidic pronunciation.
“Ultimately it’s a good compromise,” Viswanath told me in Yiddish. “Most Yiddish-speaking communities use this pronunciation and speakers of Hasidic Yiddish did most of the work on the course. There were also fewer resources for students to learn it.”
Indeed, Duolingo Yiddish is the first major course that reflects how the majority of Yiddish speakers pronounce the language today. Its transliteration scheme bears this out. The Yiddish word for “and,” און, which in the northern dialects and standard Yiddish is pronounced as “un,” is transliterated in the Duolingo course as “in.” The greeting שלום־עליכם is similarly transliterated as “shulem alaykhem” with the “ay” pronounced like the word “eye” as opposed to the “sholem aleykhem” found in textbooks.
For those wishing to dig deeper into contemporary Brooklyn Yiddish, a special skill set featuring 35 lessons on Hasidic Yiddish teaches grammatical forms not covered in most courses (for instance the southern Yiddish forms of “you,” “you all,” and “yours” ets and enk) and vocabulary you won’t find in most Yiddish dictionaries. Among them are borrowings from English like “mufn” (to move, i.e. change residences) and “vakn” (to walk), terms from the old country not familiar to most non-Hasidic Yiddish speakers like shtayt (slow), tshionish (skinny) and bundatsh (French toast, a borrowing from Hungarian) and more contemporary slang like “Hak a lebn” (literally: chop a life, i.e., “have a blast”). And for those thanking a storekeeper in Williamsburg, the Hasidic way of saying “thank you” is not “a dank” but “sh’koyekh,” a shortening of the Hebrew term yasher koyekh (literally: “may your strength be firm.”)
Both Myra Awodey, Duolingo’s Lead Community Specialist, and the Polasak twins told me that they expect that the course will be further expanded. And since the course is still in its beta phase, changes will be made over the coming weeks and months; Duolingo staff will keep an eye on how students use it and make adjustments to the lessons to better serve them.
The course creators have great hopes for Duolingo Yiddish. Israel and Isac Polasak, who discovered Duolingo after leaving the Hasidic community and used it to learn Spanish, hope that it will help others who’ve left Yiddish-speaking communities maintain their mother tongue. Meena Viswanath sees the software’s wide reach as having the potential to raise Yiddish’s profile.
“It will bring in people who would otherwise never have encountered the language,” Viswanath said. “Of the tens of thousands of people who use it, even if one percent continue doing things with Yiddish it would be an extraordinary thing for the Yiddish world.”