Latin Comes to Duolingo
The World’s Most Popular Language App Now Offers Latin
High school Latin teaching is a unique profession. Not many people get the benefit of a summer off, and given that chance, I’ve tried to use it well. This summer I traveled with the Paideia Institute to Italy and Greece, helping out the New York staff on various projects throughout the course of their summer programs. One project sounded particularly exciting at the outset: helping to develop a brand new course, Duolingo’s Latin for English speakers.
If by chance you aren’t familiar with Duolingo, it’s a smartphone and desktop application in which end users can practice reading, speaking and writing a new language through a game interface that incorporates many of the skills useful for language practice. Duolingo has more than 300 million total learners in virtually every country in the world, and the platform now teaches more than 90 courses. Most people trying to learn a language with the help of a smartphone have probably at least spent a few minutes interacting with Duo, the sassy green owl (an owl in Latin is bubo) who guides learners through their courses.
As a language teacher I’ve been aware of Duolingo for years. I’ve used it to practice German and a bit of Italian, and I always wondered why there was no Latin course. Initially, I chalked it up to Latin’s relatively complicated inflection, but given that Russian and German are offered, I figured that the Duolingo leadership must prefer modern languages over linguae antiquae. Of course the app is also famous for offering such languages as Klingon and High Valyrian, so I always raised an eyebrow when I heard someone bemoaning the lack of Latin on Duolingo (it does happen!).
Luckily, Duolingo Latin is happening. Paideia staff and other volunteers have been working on the basic structure and content for months. Over the course of the summer, I got a chance to evaluate and expand some of the content, working closely with Duolingo staff and Paideia’s publications team to complete the project. Now that the project is launching, I’ve finally been able to share my involvement with friends and acquaintances on social media. Judging by their reaction, a lot of people are excited by this new course, and it may well be a game-changer for a new generation of students trying to learn Latin.
But it won’t happen without a broad base of support. Duolingo is a crowd-sourced project in its beta phase (“beta phase” is what the Romans would have called its probatio: the trial or testing period). Participants in the testing phase will get a chance to make suggestions, clarify questions, and make sure all possible correct translations are there. Latin teachers, Classics majors and even high school students can contribute. All Duolingo languages continually go through this crowdsourced process, so that if any lessons are less than clear to a beginning learner, they can be improved and rebuilt to further the goal of gamified learning. After the work of volunteer contributors (that would be voluntarii) is completed, the app will “graduate” and be ready for all learners to enjoy. I invite anyone who is interested and qualified to join in the fun through the Duolingo incubator (you can apply right here).
Over the past several years as a magistra in the classroom, I have learned a lot about teaching (and learning!) vocabulary in a second language. My teachers were strict from the beginning: memorize the full dictionary entry or else you, the learner, do not actually know the vocabulary. While I’m grateful for a solid grounding of memorized vocabulary, I am convinced this is not the only or the best way to really get Latin vocabulary ingrained in your head.
Language is all about context, and when you pair this with a highly inflected language (like lingua Latina), it’s helpful and even necessary to practice in small, comprehensible chunks of meaning longer than single words. The active use of Latin, whether speaking, writing, or a natural flow of reading, requires a flexibility of recall and adaptability that leads to real mastery. Furthermore, the most successful beginning Latin students are students first and foremost of patterns: endings, phrases, and the behavior of verbs are much easier to grok (which means to know intimately or intime cognoscere) when a student begins to see some of the basic patterns in the language. This, of course, requires lots of input that is clear, and particularly at the beginning, concise.
Duolingo is a fun app, but I think it also does a great job of helping students pick out the basic patterns. In the first “tree” (the Duolingo term for a unit progression of lessons — we would call it arbor prima in Latin), students will be exposed to many different forms of several hundred words in complete sentences. For every silly sentence (I am particularly fond of writing about parrots, peacocks, and clever weasels, psittaci et pavones et mustelae callidae) there are also greetings (salve!) and nuggets of ancient Roman culture. I hope that some of the cultural references included in the course — salutationes, interesting Roman foods (cibus), mythology (dei) — will inspire users to explore further.
In addition to corrections and improvements made to the existing materials, there will be further work to make Duolingo accommodate more advanced language practice. We have written most of the first “tree,” as Duolingo terms it, so that students get practice with many common vocabulary words, present active indicative verbs, and many noun and adjective case uses. This is wonderful practice for A1 level (beginner) learners, but we will continue to build upon the work we have begun to expand into more complicated grammatical structures.
I am excited to hear how Duolingo learners and Paideia supporters react to the new app, and how the next few language trees develop. Duolingo is a great way to dive straight into active Latin, so if you need a refresher or want your students to practice basic concepts and expose themselves to many repetitions of basic, useful and/or fun vocabulary, you would be well served by checking it out.
Those interested in becoming part of the user group working on the Latin-English Duolingo can go to the “incubator” here.
Nancy Vander Veer holds a B.A. in Classics from Samford University. She teaches high school Latin in New York City.