If you have ever wanted to learn how to sing “If I Were a Rich Man” in Yiddish or read the works of Sholem Aleichem in its original tongue, then the opportunity could now be at hand.
Language-learning app and website Duolingo launched a new Yiddish program on Tuesday, April 6 for all those who want to connect to their communal past and those simply looking to learn a new and absorbing language.
“Yiddish was one of the [languages] that not only had a lot of people who wanted to help build a language course that would be free for everybody but a lot of people asking about the course who wanted to learn Yiddish, to reconnect with their heritage, to talk to their families,” Myra Awodey, senior community manager for Duolingo told The Jerusalem Post.
Duolingo worked with a number of creators for several years to create the program that contains thousands of words, sentences and exercises and of course, a completely different alphabet.
“We worked with people who were heritage speakers, who were experts and authorities on how to teach Yiddish. They had a really good grasp on what they wanted to teach, the scope, what the content should look like and our role was more of a guidance, and a mentorship with the technology side,” Awodey said.
One of the language contributors to the course, native Yiddish speaker Meena Viswanath told the Post, “I was brought on to make the spelling and the grammar consistent and be conscious in the way they were presenting those things.”
Like the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions,” Yiddish has a vast array of dialects and differences based on location being once so widespread over Europe but Viswanath said to make things easier, the team went with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s classification of Yiddish.
“In the interest of making things consistent, the course developers also decided that they wanted to use the YIVO standardized spelling system, which was developed in the early 20th century. As well, a lot of Yiddish literature and Yiddish in the non-hassidic world is written using that spelling.”
Most of the language contributors to the course come from a hassidic background, with a more native take on the language, but that in itself threw up problems to overcome.
“The rest of the team mostly come from the hassidic community. Most of them are currently not in the hassidic community anymore, but they are very fluent native speakers, but maybe have never taken a course in Yiddish in terms of the formal grammatical concepts.”
Viswanath said the aim was “to present Yiddish in its full richness, both from a grammatical standpoint as well as vocabulary.”
Joining Viswanath on the contributing team were brothers Isac and Israel Polasak from Brooklyn, and Williamsburg natives Libby Pollak and 15-year-old Josh.
The launch was accompanied by a bagel treat at several delis throughout the US. Anyone brave enough to order in Yiddish (and help was at hand) received a free bagel as part of the launch.
“It’s gotten a great response. From within the community and outside the community people are excited. So everyone can get a little treat with their introduction to the Yiddish language,” Awody said ahead of the launch.
Participating delis included Katz’s Delicatessen (New York City), Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen (Chicago), Factor’s Famous Deli (Los Angeles), Zak the Baker (Miami), and Pigeon Bagels (Pittsburgh, PA).
Awodey says the hope for the course is similar in scope to the Irish course Duolingo brought out. With little expectation for an interest in the Irish language, over a million people have since begun learning the language through Duolingo and Awodey hopes Yiddish can prove the same.
“A million would already be a really great start and hopefully beyond that Duolingo has worldwide appeal.”