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Podcast: Meena Viswanath on How the Duolingo App Became an Unwitting Arbiter of Modern Jewish Identity

April 14, 2021 | By: Meena Viswanath

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Last week, the language-learning app Duolingo introduced a new course on Yiddish. The course sparked significant interest, and provoked significant controversy. In the app’s menu, each language is represented by the flag of the primary country in which that language is spoken. But what flag should be used for Yiddish? Moreover, since each Yiddish dialect is associated with particular cultural and religious orientations, controversy also surrounded the question of which form of Yiddish should govern pronunciation of the language in the audio elements of the app. Suddenly, this language-learning app became the site of a proxy argument over modern Jewish identity.

To provide some of the necessary background, and to better understand these controversies, one of the Duolingo app’s Yiddish course developers, Meena Viswanath, joins this week’s podcast. In conversation with Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver, she explains how the controversies came about, what they mean for students of Yiddish, and what they reveal about Jewish identity at this cultural moment.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

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More about: Jewish Education  • The American Jewish Experience  • Tikvah Podcasts  

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