Duolingo Adds Hawaiian and Navajo — the Resurrection of Indigenous Languages
Duolingo has elevated itself from just being a language learning tool, but also a living museum of languages
On Columbus Day, or Indigenous People’s Day, Duolingo, the popular language learning app, announced its release of two language courses on its web and mobile apps. Hawaiian and Navajo are now open to the public to learn.
What is possibly the most interesting is Duolingo’s reasons for introducing both languages — that they are on the decline because of historical suppression of indigenous culture in the United States. Rather than an effort to facilitate communication around the world, this is to preserve culture by keeping a language alive.
A similar thing happened with one of their earlier courses: Irish. Duolingo has played a part in the resurgence of the Irish language, which now has millions of people learning worldwide. Interestingly, Irish was also discouraged under English authority.
My mother is technically a first-generation American, though she was adopted into an all-American family. Her birthplace is in Vietnam, and she spoke Vietnamese as a toddler. However, when she was adopted, the language slowly disappeared. Her parents chided her for speaking her mother tongue, and she had no ties to her culture. Today, she knows no Vietnamese words.
Despite my Vietnamese heritage, I know very little Vietnamese. What I do know is spoken clumsily, learned through books and professors rather than family.
Similarly, I know many friends of first- or second-generation immigrant families who don’t know their parents’ or grandparents’ native tongues. In these cases it’s usually by choice — the caregiver chooses not to pass down the language.
I can’t blame them. “We’re in America, we speak English here.” I’ve heard this phrase, and I’ve heard it thrown at people who are just speaking to their own family. Kids sometimes make fun of their peers for speaking another language. Speaking a foreign language in public offends those who only know one.
Another person . . . who raises her kids speaking Spanish in the Netherlands, said that so many people have talked rudely about her in Dutch while riding the subway, falsely assuming that she doesn’t know the national language, that she’s just learned to stop caring what other people think of her. But when her kids got bullied in school for speaking a foreign language, and their classmates started calling them “Spaanse jochies” (little Spanish kids), they became ashamed of their language and begged her to stop speaking it with them.
In a society that discourages bilingualism, the non-dominant culture loses its language. And a culture that can only speak the language of its colonizers is permanently disconnected from its heritage.
Duolingo has elevated itself from just being a language learning tool, but also a living museum of languages, a way for us to connect with each other’s culture. It resists the concept of assimilation and instead seems to celebrate our differences.
While I can only focus on one target language for now, I look forward to opening the Hawaiian and Navajo courses and learning at least a few words.
Originally published at knowledgebeyondcollege.com on October 10, 2018.