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Duolingo adds Yiddish to its language lessons

Duolingo remains among the most popular language learning apps and has steadily added new languages, including some that linguists worry could eventually disappear.
Illustration of two Jewish people touching hands, the person on the left is in a historical setting and the person on the right is in a modern city. The modern person is holding a phone.
The Duolingo learning app is adding Yiddish to its offerings.Ilya Milstein / for NBC News

The Duolingo learning app on Tuesday is adding a new language to its offerings: Yiddish. 

It's the 40th language to be added to the app — and one that builds on efforts to include languages that are not as common as they once were.

"We're really excited that we're able to get into linguistic diversity," said Myra Awodey, Duolingo’s lead community specialist. "Not only preserving languages but also helping to teach languages that are kind of on the brink or shrinking."

The Yiddish language has seen a steep decline since its peak decades ago. It’s hard to know the definitive number of Yiddish speakers worldwide, but Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, said that estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million, down from around 11 million on the eve of World War II.

And while the language can often be heard in "Yinglish" — a mix of English and Yiddish — the Duolingo course is meant to help people go beyond the phrases they might already be familiar with.

"It’s not just like six words that are used as a punchline in a joke," said Meena Viswanath, one of the Duolingo course creators. "And there is grammar and spelling and you can be rigorous about it." 

Viswanath is the granddaughter of Mordkhe Schaechter, who was a prominent Yiddish linguist and professor at Columbia University. Her mother published a Yiddish dictionary, and her brother translated Harry Potter into Yiddish.

She grew up in a modern Orthodox Jewish family in New Jersey. While Yiddish was not normally spoken in this community, her family has been largely involved in the movement to pass it on.

"I’m raising my two kids to speak Yiddish," Viswanath said. "My ideal world is one where there are more and more people for them to speak Yiddish with."

Duolingo's Yiddish course.
A screenshot from Duolingo's Yiddish course.Duolingo

Duolingo, founded in 2011, remains among the most popular language learning apps and has steadily added new languages, including many that linguists worry could eventually disappear. Its Irish course was launched in 2014. Awodey said the feedback  inspired them to do more.

Awodey said the Irish course reached over a million learners in its first year.

"That was kind of a turning moment for us," she said.

Yiddish is still spoken in Hasidic Jewish communities around the world, but not commonly in secular Jewish ones. Still, words and phrases are passed down within those families. 

Shandler said Yiddish is known as a "heritage language" that people often study to connect with family histories.

"You now have younger generations saying, 'This language is important to me as part of my heritage, and I am going to learn it,'" Shandler said.

That's the case for Zalman Orloff, 24, whose goal in learning Yiddish is to read his late great grandfather’s journals.

While many of the entries are in English, the early ones are in Yiddish. 

"We have not translated them, and now every Yiddish speaker in our family has sadly passed on," Orloff said. 

Orloff said he looked forward to giving the Duolingo lessons a try.

"I think Duolingo is really good," he said. "I’ve used it before. I think it’s an incredible opportunity for Yiddish to gain some more prominence."

Jake Millhouse, 34, is a graduate student in Jewish studies at Gratz College in Philadelphia who is currently learning Yiddish at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He said he and his fiancé want to incorporate the language into their home life. “As soon as we can start using it, that’s our plan.” 

He, too, wants to pass it on to his children.

"I want to make sure my kids know Yiddish real well," Millhouse said. "It’s their birthright."