Not even Swahili can stump Pittsburgh-based language learning app Duolingo |

Not even Swahili can stump Pittsburgh-based language learning app Duolingo

Aaron Aupperlee
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Myra Awodey, lead community specialist at Duolingo, and Rogelio Alvarez, director of business development and sales at Duolingo, work on a project at Duolingo's East Liberty office, Wednesday, March 1, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Myra Awodey, Lead Community Specialist at Duolingo and Rogelio Alvarez, Director of Business Development and Sales at Duolingo, pose for a photo at Duolingo's East Liberty office, Wednesday, March 1, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Myra Awodey, Lead Community Specialist at Duolingo and Rogelio Alvarez, Director of Business Development and Sales at Duolingo, pose for a photo at Duolingo's East Liberty office, Wednesday, March 1, 2017.

Brendan Ryan sharpened his Swahili skills quite quickly when the Peace Corps stationed him in a rural village in Tanzania.

But for those without the luxury of total immersion, the popular language learning app Duolingo can help.

Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn announced Friday at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town, South Africa, that the Pittsburgh-based language learning company will launch a course for English speakers to learn Swahili.

It is Duolingo’s first African language course and an important first step to opening up the continent, Ryan said.

“The point of entry for a lot of cultural integration is language. Having that ability to communicate is very important,” Ryan told the Tribune-Review this week from Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, where he’s stationed with the Peace Corps. “It’s really allowing the world to learn Swahili in a way they haven’t been able to before.”

Ryan, 25, a gender program coordinator with the Peace Corps, worked with two Peace Corps Swahili language instructors and a team at Duolingo to create the course. It took the team 17 months to finish it.

About 9,000 people worldwide used the course during beta testing, including a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders who was traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work with refugees, Ryan said.

Swahili is spoken by more than 100 million people and is the national language of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Congo.

It is also the third most common language other than English spoken in Pittsburgh Public Schools behind Spanish and Nepali, said Jonathan Covel, director of the district’s English as a Second Language program. Covel said there are 150 children in the ESL program who speak Swahili. There are 246 Spanish-speaking children in the program, Covel said.

Swahili-speaking children started showing up in the district more than 10 years ago when Somali Bantu refugees began arriving, Covel said.

Swahili is the third language course collaboration between Duolingo and the Peace Corps. They also teamed up for the company’s courses on Ukrainian and Guarani, a widely spoken language in Paraguay and Bolivia.

Duolingo teaches languages through flash cards, sentences to translate and games.

“I’m excited to announce that we are launching Swahili, our very first African language, at Design Indaba,” von Ahn said Friday during a speech at the conference. “The course was created in collaboration with the Peace Corps to help their volunteers contribute to Swahili-speaking communities more effectively. We hope to incorporate other African languages in the future, and the next one up will probably be Zulu.”

Rogelio Alvarez, director of business development at Duolingo, and Myra Awodey, Duolingo’s lead community specialist, were part of the team working on Swahili.

“It is an influential language politically, economically and socially, and it also plays an important part in education in several African countries,” Alvarez wrote to the Tribune-Review.

Duolingo has 74 employees in its East Liberty office. Those 74, however, are not fluent in the 28 languages for which Duolingo offers courses. The company develops language courses through an online community of volunteers. The Duolingo Incubator has created about 80 of the nearly 100 language courses the company offers.

Incubator volunteers translate the thousands of sentences that make up a Duolingo course. The courses go through three phases of development. Courses currently in Phase 1 include Spanish for Arabic speakers, Indonesian for English speakers, Russian for Turkish speakers, High Valyrian from “Game of Thrones” and Klingon from “Star Trek.”

Alvarez said finding the needed volunteers to build a course is a key factor when deciding whether to develop one. The company also considers the difficulty of the language — some courses are difficult for even native speakers to create — and the demand of the language.

Alvarez said the most-spoken languages get priority, but some get special consideration. The company launched a Welsh course after the leader of Wales wrote to Duolingo about the importance of preserving and spreading the language, Alvarez said.

“This speaks to another key factor, which is determining the impact that launching a new language will have on various countries and their citizens,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said East Asian languages have been the most challenging. Some, such as Mandarin Chinese, don’t have an alphabet but use tones, which is challenging to teach. Demand for those languages, however, has pushed the company. Alvarez told the Trib that Duolingo expects to launch a Japanese course for English speakers in May in response to high demand.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at [email protected] or 412-336-8448.

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