Duolingo, the popular language learning app, offers a wide variety of languages in the list of courses. While it is known for teaching well-known tongues such as French, Spanish and Chinese, it has also added courses in less commonly used languages such as Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Hawaiian – and now, as of April 6, it is 40th language : Yiddish.
While Yiddish is more known in the US for some of the words that have entered the popular lexicon (“He’s such an asshole!”), It is actually a full language. An amalgamation of High German, Hebrew, and Aramaic, with a few Slavic languages (and more recently English), before World War II, it was widely spoken by Jewish communities living in Central and Eastern Europe.
Today, as a daily language, Yiddish is mainly spoken in Hasidic and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish communities, although there has been a strong interest in Yiddish among many of the descendants of European Yiddish speakers.
For example, while my family no longer speaks Yiddish on a daily basis, my parents grew up speaking the language and sent me to an after-school program for several years so I could learn it too. Although I’m nowhere near as fluent as I used to be, I can still handle “a bisl Yiddish” (a little Yiddish), so I asked Duolingo if I could try the Yiddish course beforehand to see how it worked.
I’m no stranger to Duolingo – I’ve used the app to relearn my high school Spanish – and found that the Yiddish course follows the app’s well-known methodology. It starts with testing your existing knowledge of a language, assuming you’re not starting from scratch. (Mine turned out to be fair, but not great.) It then starts, through repetition and examples, walking you through the basics and then engaging in conversation, with different topics (like going to a restaurant).
The version of the app I was working with still had some beta issues. For example, every time you click on a word, a voice will hear it repeat aloud and a few words were missing. I was also interested to find out that a few words were pronounced very differently from what I was used to, but I wasn’t sure if that was another beta error or an indication of the dialect used.
And that’s one of the catches in teaching any language. Since Yiddish was once spread across many countries, a wide variety of dialects were also spoken. I remember my grandparents were very amused because the dialect I learned in school was so different from the dialect they grew up with. According to Duolingo, the Yiddish course uses the Hasidic Hungarian pronunciation as it is currently the most widely used, while the grammar is based on the version standardized by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (which is the grammar I learned).
I’ll be curious where these differences occur as I progress to the more advanced levels. In the meantime, to promote its new Yiddish course, Duolingo has made arrangements with several delis in the US – Katz’s Deli in NYC, Manny’s Deli in Chicago, Factor’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles, Zak the Baker in Miami and Pigeon Bagels in Pittsburgh – to give away free bagels with a schmear (cream cheese) on April 6 to customers trying to order (using some on-site plates) in Yiddish.
Those of us who don’t live near any of those locations, or who still avoid on-site shopping, will have to make do with getting food from our own refrigerators while learning a bisl Yiddish. Duolingo is available at iOS Android, and the WebThe basic app is free, or you can remove ads and track your process for $ 7 per month.