Pedagogy

The Golden Peacock and the Green Owl: Analyzing Yiddish Language Learners’ Experiences with Duolingo

Sarah Biskowitz

Background on the Survey

It seems that no Yiddish phenomenon in recent memory has attracted more praise, more criticism, or more excitement than Yiddish Duolingo. Since its debut in April 2021, hundreds of thousands of people have engaged with the app–some briefly, some devotedly. As it approached its one year anniversary, in winter 2022, I circulated a survey to explore the triumphs and limitations of this application for its wide and diverse audience.

This survey was posted on the In geveb website and circulated on social media in January 2022. Three hundred and four people responded before the survey was closed. The respondents heard about the survey via online Yiddish learning groups and took the time to fill it out, therefore there is some selection bias; respondents are likely more engaged in Yiddish learning than the average Yiddish Duolingo users.

Most questions prompted respondents to “check all that apply” and allowed respondents to add their own reasons, which I then coded according to theme. Other questions (specified below) called for only written answers which I also coded according to theme. I excluded outlier responses in order to improve graph clarity. Sometimes when comments discuss a topic relevant to a different question, I have quoted the response in a different section of my analysis. I have also slightly changed the order of the questions and omitted redundant information. Quotes have been edited for capitalization, abbreviations, and typos.

Demographics

The respondents skewed younger than typical In geveb surveys. A wide variety of ages was represented.

Where do you live? (city and/or country) (299 responses)

  • North America: 210
    • USA: 200
      • 33 states specified
    • Mexico: 1
    • Canada: 21
  • Europe: 62
    • UK: 25; Germany: 12; France: 4
    • 1-3 responses from 14 other European countries
  • Other: 14 responses
  • Israel: 3; Jerusalem, Palestine: 1; Hong Kong: 1; Australia: 5, India: 1; Brazil: 3

Most respondents lived in the United States, with the United Kingdom and Canada being the second and third most common country. A variety of European countries and several other countries around the world were also represented.

Many respondents have studied other languages, with almost a third studying 3 or more other languages on Duolingo.

Previous Engagement with Yiddish language and/or culture

Some respondents did not report any involvement, but some people had studied Yiddish before either in a group setting or individually; some reported exposure growing up. Janet Gottlieb explained, “My parents spoke it but whatever I learned died with them.”

Most respondents had no previous experience with Haredi Yiddish culture or language. A few reported living in Hasidic areas or having connections via family or work. Explained Mohammad Abed El-Nabi, “Because of obvious reasons related to me being a Jerusalemite, the language is not so foreign to my ears because I hear it more often than not in public transportation and eavesdropping on interactions between people from the Haredi community.” A few others reported having Haredi family members, and one respondent said their family left the Haredi world when they were four years old. Others were not interested in engaging with the Haredi world, and often felt that was mutual. One respondent explained, “As a queer and genderqueer trans person I don't feel like I'd be welcome in Haredi communities, due to both strict gender roles (have run into issues with shomer negiah people in the past) and general politics. I don't feel bad at all for not prioritizing engaging with them.”

Barriers to previous study of Yiddish for respondents included lack of accessibility and lack of awareness. One respondent explained, “It seemed difficult to get started, many different dialects and unclear where to start with self-study.” Some cited a lack of time or motivation prior to Duolingo Yiddish. One respondent wrote, “Learning Yiddish with Duolingo made it accessible and easier, with less barrier to entry.” A few respondents described their interest in learning Yiddish coinciding with the arrival of the Duolingo Yiddish course during pandemic times when many people were looking for new ways to spend their time at home. Laurel described, “I hadn't really considered it as an option until I saw it on Duolingo.” Duolingo provided a visible and structured way to learn Yiddish. Wrote Jeremy (Avrham) Milarsky, “I think I need the daily routine and ever-present reminder of my desire to learn Yiddish via a smartphone app.”

Engagement with Yiddish Duolingo

Most respondents started studying Yiddish on Duolingo when it came out, and most were still using Yiddish Duolingo ten months later when they filled out the survey. (Regrettably I forgot to include December 2021 in these questions.)

Respondents appreciated the accessibility of Duolingo. Wrote one respondent: “I have a young child. Messing around learning works better than a formal class, especially evening classes.” During the pandemic, Duolingo provided a Yiddish learning option that was “socially distant but not Zoom,” as Sheyne Reyzl described. Many also cited it as an enjoyable option that kept learners engaged, with Michael Greenberg explaining: “the gamified objective of 'maintaining the streak' keeps it a constant presence, like the pilot light on a stove, some days the flame ignites, allowing me to make further inroads into Yiddish language and culture.” People felt that they were participating in Duolingo Yiddish alongside others, with Sarra saying she “loved the bandwagon feel.” Wrote one Russian university instructor, “I really think this is the ideal way for many learners to become fluent in reading and to drill basic vocab (grammar and speaking/writing practise also needed). The humour is superbly done and the whole thing is far more engaging than textbooks like Colloquial Yiddish/Russian etc.”

Many respondents cited a cultural component to their Yiddish language study, and a desire to use the language to better understand Yiddish history and culture, including literature, film, music. Many also reported an interest in connecting to their family’s past. Explained one respondent, “I feel like I owe it to my ancestors to keep something of them alive.” There was also a strong political connotation, with many respondents identifying with the causes of leftist politics, minority languages, and anti-Zionism. Some cited a way to engage with Jewishness in a non-religious context, with Leora Matison explaining, “Yiddish is an option for secular Jewish culture, which can be hard to find.” Others cited an interest in better understanding or interacting with Haredi Jewish communities.

All but a minority were satisfied. Most cited that some of their goals were met but not all.

All but 15% reported what I would describe as regular and/or high levels of engagement.

Discussing Duolingo Yiddish’s Dialect

Described one respondent, “I will never forget how divisive the survey was to pick the dialect. I seriously thought I was going to lose friends over it.” While respondents detailed challenges that they experienced with the Duolingo’s dialect choices, only 16% reported an overall negative experience.

How did Duolingo help you achieve your goals? Have your goals or expectations evolved? Please explain.

Many respondents find Duolingo to be an access point into learning Yiddish. As Pinya stated, “Duolingo helps to learn Yiddish in [the] subway.” The technological aspect made it convenient for many. For Sarah Larsson, Yiddish Duolingo provided engagement in Yiddish study “during the COVID pandemic” and “a more wholesome activity to spend time with on my phone than other games and/or social media.”

Respondents described Duolingo as a source of consistent practice and passive knowledge, with a respondent saying they practice with Duolingo between classes and another using it between semesters. Furthermore, it allowed one respondent to achieve their goal of accessing the language of Hasidic Jewry: “I feel like Duolingo opened a door for me into Hasidic Yiddish that was previously closed. I want to learn the Yiddish that people speak today, and it is helping me do that. I now can read a bit of Der Veker and forums like iVelt. As a formerly observant Jew it means a lot to me.”

However, Yiddish Duolingo did not provide the instruction that all the respondents were looking for. Michael expressed frustration that Duolingo “is severely limited in teaching grammar, conjugations, and general rules.” (Duolingo removed its in-app tips; the tips made for the Yiddish course by its creators can be found here). This made one respondent “feel like I’m practicing rote memorization rather than coming to a deeper understanding of the language. Comparing it to their Yiddish classes, one respondent explained that “the culture side is lacking….my in-person and online Yiddish classes had more songs, [anecdotes], expressions, cultural context.” Specifically, Zak described, “Duolingo has enabled me to learn Yiddish, which is necessary for my goals of engaging with Yiddish-language materials/events/etc., but it has not provided opportunities to put that knowledge to use.”

Most respondents either understood the limitations of Yiddish Duolingo going in, or came to realize them. Rose Auerbach explained, “My comprehension has improved. Initially I was hoping to learn more about how to speak and write Yiddish, but I soon realized Duolingo isn't the best resource for that. But the user community has pointed me to the resources I need!”

In fact, many respondents described how they paired Duolingo with other resources to further their learning. Michael Greenberg explained: “It has provided a solid tethering base and inspiration from which to advance and seek out and learn about other Yiddish language resources.”

Iain Stewart reported satisfaction, writing, “My goal is simple. To learn Yiddish. So far, so good.”

Among the written responses I coded, the top two answers offer opposing perspectives, suggesting users felt strongly in both positive and negative directions about Yiddish Duolingo’s dialect.

Some had praise for Duolingo’s dialect choices. One respondent called them “fascinating and a revelation.” Another explained, “It broadened my understanding of Yiddish and all its permutations, plus it has piqued my interest in how Yiddish is evolving as a living language.” One respondent said, “I’m glad they chose this pronunciation as it’s what is spoken today.”

One challenge was understanding how the pronunciation matched the spelling. One respondent wrote, “I am still thoroughly confused by the gap between spelling and pronunciation.” It also did not align with other learning materials, or Yiddish-speaking spaces. Rebecca Frailich commented that the dialect did not match their YIVO textbook, which they found confusing, as did Yael Horowitz, who called the choice “a bit mixed and matched and does not always align with the pronunciation in other Yiddish spaces.”

Mostly, respondents had difficulties transitioning to or from other Yiddish learning experiences to Duolingo. Some people were able to adjust, while others weren’t. Two respondents completely ignored the Hasidic pronunciation dialect by turning off their sound. Itzhak Seim noticed that his speech “has drifted more towards the contemporary Haredi dialect.”

Some people did not want to learn Hasidic Yiddish or did want to learn the YIVO dialect so were disappointed. Joseph Stein explained, “I didn’t understand the choice, since most Haredi communities are quite isolated (and, importantly, isolated by choice). My impression is that the most open community of speakers are speaking klal.” However this was not a deal-breaker for most respondents. For example, even though Rachel Cane wanted to learn klal Yiddish, she said “that doesn’t mean the app can’t work for me.”

Respondents who reported learning Yiddish to connect with their family history were satisfied if they felt the Hasidic pronunciation was similar to what their family spoke, or were disappointed if they felt it contrasted with their ancestors’ dialect.

Challenges of Duolingo

Respondents struggled with lack of understanding of grammar (such as the structure of words of Hebraic/Aramaic origin) and a lack of speaking practice.

Some found Duolingo “too gamified” or that it had too much drilling. Respondents found that the activities did not provide much variety as they were mostly “recall” and “translating sentences back and forth.” Respondents also reported frustrations with automated aspects, such as correct answers not being accepted. (This is something the course, which is currently in its beta stage, is continuously improving, but can never be truly perfect with an automated system). They also may not have understood why incorrect answers were incorrect, with one respondent explaining “it's very hard to extrapolate from patterns and understand the internal logic of what you're memorizing.” And experimentation can be penalized, as Judith Liskin-Gasparro explained: “I wish I could know whether other options (largely word order) would be accepted also, but I don't like to experiment or take risks for fear of losing points (a downside of the gamification feature!).”

One respondent described their challenges as not unique to Duolingo Yiddish but in fact “the same as all Duolingo programs -- lack of interpersonal exchange, a limit to how far you can go in learning, flagging interest over time.” However, Malcolm Rehberger explains how, “This is an issue I've seen friends in F/SL [foreign/second language] education bring up and it feels like, because of the ways Yiddish is already flattened by post-vernacularity, these are especially hazardous to actual fluency.”

Respondents reported difficulty with taking Yiddish from Duolingo into other spaces and mediums, as one respondent described: “The app's focus on memorizing specific phrases rather than grammatical ideas makes it hard to actually take what I learn from it into actual Yiddish scenarios and conversations.” Vivian reports difficulty with written texts because they are in different fonts than Duolingo.

A few respondents detailed the course’s inaccessibility to people with disabilities, with Avi Rosen and one anonymous respondent explaining how the course completely excludes Deaf people.

Duolingo and Social Engagement

One third of respondents were not interested in finding community through Duolingo. However, two thirds of respondents were interested in finding community, with only a small number feeling Duolingo provided enough community to meet their interests. Perhaps this contingent could be served by other Yiddish initiatives. Respondents cited Facebook groups and the forum feature of Duolingo, which has since been removed. One respondent enjoyed posting about Yiddish Duolingo alongside other friends, but reported “that tapered off after a while.”

Respondents were active on other platforms and Yiddish social media groups (though this was also how the survey was circulated and therefore might be an overrepresentation).

Many respondents recommended Duolingo to their family and friends, reflecting a high satisfaction rate and the spread of Duolingo beyond the digital world and into “IRL” relationships.

After or Beyond Duolingo…

Very few people who filled out the survey only wanted to learn a little Yiddish and stopped. Mikhail Yaakov completed the course but wrote “I still love to revisit the content regardless. It's good to keep sharp if you don't use it all the time, plus it's fun.”

Respondents reported high levels of engaging with other aspects of Yiddish culture, either in English or Yiddish, formally or informally. A few noted that the pandemic prevented them from further Yiddish engagement. Respondents mentioned the Forverts, Dos Yidishe Kol, Vaybertaytsh, and other Yiddish content. Yael Horowitz described that, “I was sitting on a plane the other day and there were Haredi Jews speaking Yiddish and I could understand some of what they were saying.” Jay Dubin has tried to speak Yiddish but has reported challenges, including being responded to in English. Morgan Holleb said, “I occasionally neutrally engage with Haredi Yiddish on Twitter, but it's depressing so I've mostly stopped.”

Respondents are interested in speaking practice, grammar explanations, cultural instruction and engagement, and learning more dialects. They also cite an interest in reading authentic texts, consuming more Yiddish media, and attending in-person events. Respondents once again point to the importance of accessibility, including financial access and according to time zone.

Respondents report an interest in communities dedicated to Yiddish, and also bringing Yiddish into Jewish-American culture and education overall (though not all respondents are US-based, or Jewish). There is also a contingent of respondents specifically interested in Haredi culture.

Overall Trends

Articles about surges in interest in Yiddish often end by gesturing toward the future, asking whether the language will survive or how. But what this survey points to is a bright and promising present, with students of Yiddish practicing their vocabulary daily with the encouragement of chipper animated characters. The results of this survey help us get a better picture of what our current moment of digital Yiddish learning looks and feels like to its participants. Respondents are motivated by desires to connect to Yiddish culture or politics, and/or their own family history, among other motivations. A small but notable contingent described their specific interest in the Haredi Yiddish world. Almost all respondents reported consistent, active engagement with Yiddish Duolingo, and often recommended it to their friends and family. Many respondents paired Duolingo with outside learning opportunities. Respondents report a high interest in other Yiddish learning opportunities and community engagement, especially in accessible ways.

For many, Yiddish Duolingo proved to be a useful resource in their Yiddish learning journey. I look forward to seeing what these Yiddish learners do with Yiddish next!

MLA STYLE
Biskowitz, Sarah. “The Golden Peacock and the Green Owl: Analyzing Yiddish Language Learners’ Experiences with Duolingo.” In geveb, November 2022: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/duolingo.
CHICAGO STYLE
Biskowitz, Sarah. “The Golden Peacock and the Green Owl: Analyzing Yiddish Language Learners’ Experiences with Duolingo.” In geveb (November 2022): Accessed Dec 07, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Biskowitz

Sarah Biskowitz is a Yiddish cultural activist and a Talmud scholar at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.