For the JC April 2021
“Amol iz geven a mayse” — or “once upon a time” — there was a language learning app called Duolingo. And this week, Yiddish, the language of poets and dreamers and east European Jewish workers, became the app’s 40th language, and one hundredth free course.
The much-anticipated course, released on Tuesday, has been greeted with cries of joy by fluent Yiddish speakers in the US, who have had a chance to try out the lessons. But you don’t need to be an accomplished Yiddish speaker to get to grips with Duolingo Yiddish.
In fact, as the company points out, English has incorporated many Yiddish words into the language, from “bagel” to “nosh” to “lox” — you may see a pattern emerging here — or other familiar terms such as “mensch” or “oy vey”. So few people will be dealing with utterly alien terminology.
Duolingo courses are created in partnership with a team of dedicated volunteers. One — talking of alien terminology — even created an entire fictional language, High Valyrian, spoken in the TV series Game of Thrones.
But for real life Yiddish, breaking down the “mammaloshen” (mother tongue) was the task of several course creators in the US, representing three different strands of dialects. One is a civil engineer who grew up speaking Yiddish in her Chasidic community; two others are 23-year-old twins who were raised in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, so their tradition is of Hungarian-influenced Yiddish; and there’s even a 15-year-old who began improving his conversational Yiddish when his family moved from Williamsburg, New York, to Georgia.
Isac and Israel Polasak grew up speaking Yiddish, but when they left their Yiddish-speaking school in Brooklyn for a public school, they found they needed to speak Spanish — and turned to Duolingo to catch up with their classmates. Though passionate about Yiddish, the twins realised they had little idea about its grammar and structure — so put out messages on social media asking for help.
One of their respondents was Meena Viswanath, 32, who grew up in New Jersey in a modern Orthodox family with Yiddish as her first language. Now working as a civil engineer and raising her own children to speak Yiddish as their first language, she joined the Duolingo course creator team to offer help with spelling and grammar. Meena says: “It is the language of my family and I don’t want to lose that tradition.”
Libby Pollak, 32, is another native Yiddish speaker, raised in a Chasidic community in Williamsburg which she left almost 10 years ago when she discovered a secular Jewish world — but where people still spoke Yiddish. She began a Yiddish blog, has tested out Yiddish jokes to see if they are still as funny in English, and works as a Yiddish translator and transcriber. She hopes that the course is “a good starting point for people to immerse themselves in the Yiddish culture and community.”
The course has been five years in the making and, according to Jordan Kutzik in The Forward, the New York Jewish newspaper which started life as the Yiddish daily Forverts, 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”.
If this sounds daunting, it shouldn’t be. Colin Watkins, Duolingo’s country manager in the UK, says one well-attested aspect of language learning is brain training —a paltry 15 minutes a day of concentrating on absorbing a new skill could well stave off early aspects of dementia. But he notes that courses offering you mastery of a language in 30 days are generally false coin —“You can’t really do that. But what you can do is grasp the basics of a language — if you are motivated — and have fun”.
On the eve of Duolingo’s Yiddish launch, more than 9,500 students had already signed up, and the company expects many more to join, with updates — perhaps from British Yiddish speakers — being added along the way. Meanwhile, Mr Watkins, who speaks no Yiddish, encourages everyone to take a look at the course. “Zei gezunt! (Be healthy)”, he signs off — surely a vital phrase in these pandemic-ridden days.