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’s 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 for 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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  1. colleenb Member

    Interesting subject. Not being into duolingo I didn’t know anything about the Yiddish course or the controversy about it. I do know that a rabbi I knew in DC was able to communicate pretty well in Germany (in the 50s) just using the Yiddish he had grown up with. Thanks.

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