Apps

Duolingo adds Yiddish to the menu

Duolingo, the popular language learning app, offers a wide variety of languages in its list of courses. While it’s known for teaching well-known tongues such as French, Spanish, and Chinese, it has also added courses in languages that are less widely used, such as Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Hawaiian — and now, as of April 6th, its 40th language: Yiddish.

While Yiddish in the US is known more for some of the words that have entered the popular lexicon (“He’s such a schmuck!”), it is actually a full-scale language. An amalgamation of High German, Hebrew, and Aramaic, with a smattering of Slavic languages (and more recently, English), before World War II, it was widely spoken by Jewish communities living throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

These days, Yiddish as a day-to-day language tends to be spoken mainly in Chassidic and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish communities, although there has been a strong interest in Yiddish among many of the descendants of European Yiddish speakers.

For example, while my family no longer speaks Yiddish on a daily basis, my parents grew up speaking the language and sent me to an after-school program for several years so I could learn it as well. While I am no longer anywhere near as fluent as I once was, I can still manage “a bisl Yiddish” (a little Yiddish), so I asked Duolingo if I could try out its Yiddish course ahead of time to see how it worked.

I’m not unfamiliar with Duolingo — I’ve been using the app to try to relearn my high school Spanish — and I found that the Yiddish course follows the app’s familiar methodology. It starts by testing you on your existing knowledge of a language, assuming you’re not starting from scratch. (Mine turned out to be fair but not great.) It then starts, through repetition and examples, taking you through the basics and then into conversation, using different subjects (such as going to a restaurant).

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