[This is my translation of an article in Esperanto, 9.600 homoj eklernis Esperanton en du tagoj, from the website Libera Folio. (Unfortunately that article has since been removed.)]
Two days after the launch of an Esperanto course at the popular language learning site Duolingo, the course has already gained almost ten thousand participants. The number of students, then, is almost twice as big as the number of individual members of UEA [the World Esperanto Association], although the course still is not even officially launched, but is in its test phase.
The founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, mentioned in a lecture given in 2012 that most of the proposals for language courses to be added to the site were, for some reason, for Esperanto. Hearing this, Chuck Smith of Berlin immediately contacted von Ahn. And the answer was that Esperanto was indeed in the plan, but that other languages had priority.
Eight months ago, work began to create a course in Esperanto. Chuck Smith became the leader of the 5-person team, and Ruth Kevess-Cohen of the United States was chosen as the main person responsible for the course.
The course opened in test phase on Thursday 28 May at 8pm mid-European time. After less than two days, the course already had 9,600 participants, although it has not yet been actively advertised.
‘We simply sent the information to our “internal” groups. So, before the launch 26,000 people asked to be notified when the course started. In addition we put announcements in the Facebook group “Duolingo English Learners” and a Reddit group for Duolingo. Because we’re in a test phase, we’re trying to not have too many users, but of course everyone is welcome,’ says Chuck Smith.
The language-learning philosophy of Duolingo differs from most other online courses. The basic idea is that you have to translate more and more difficult sentences, and thereby gradually understand, how the language works.
‘Each group of lessons has some explanations, but we ask students to firstly just try the course before reading the explanations. If a sentence is difficult, each sentence has its own thread in which they can ask questions and then either one of the other students or a contributor will respond.’
Many of the more than nine thousand students must have joined the course just out of curiosity, to see what this strange language is, Chuck Smith assumed.
‘An interesting effect of the course is that many people do one lesson just to try out this strange language and then can’t stop and simply continue…’
Out of the 9000+ adherents, four even have finished the whole course (or “tree”, according to the terminology of Duolingo) within one day. One of the finished learners, Jules, told about his experiences in a forum of Duolingo:
‘The number of initial lessons of the Esperanto-tree flew past quickly, and made me believe that all the language would be just as easy. I know it’s reputed to be an easy language to learn, but we must however remember that it is a language, and learning a language isn’t easy.’
In the middle of the course Jules felt a bit frustrated because of the many affixes that needed to be memorised, but he decided to continue, and gradually learning became easier and enjoyable.
‘I think I’ll try to keep my new knowledge about this fascinating language. Its vocabulary is very similar to the other Romance languages, with small additions of German and even Greek here and there. The purpose of this language is to bring people together around the world and promote peace, and this probably motivated me to complete the course. So, I give a big thank-you to the Esperanto team for their great work, because they’ve created an excellent course (and also with some of the best sentences I have ever seen !!) and I hope everyone else will enjoy learning this language.’
‘At the moment one can learn Esperanto at Duolingo only via English, but it’s not impossible that other languages could be added later,’ says Chuck Smith.
‘Nothing is certain about languages other than English, but the plan is to analyse the results of our course when it has “stabilised” (no longer in test phase) and then see if it’s worth doing it from another language, and if so, which language would be most appropriate. This could be judged according to various criteria such as requirements of the community, quantity and quality of candidates and so on. The likelihood that they will add a language course will grow if more people join as contributors to Esperanto.’
Already two days after the launch of the test version, the Esperanto course at Duolingo has not only fascinated more than nine thousand students, but also received a good deal of public attention. In addition to mentions on social networks, an extensive article appeared on the website “The Verge”.
Chuck Smith had no contact with the UEA on the course during the eight-month preparatory period – but, according to him, it’s not clear how the association could help anyway. On the other hand, the team reached a agreement with TEJO [the youth section of UEA], which promised to send “Kontakto” [TEJO’s monthly magazine] free of charge to new students at Duolingo.
Libera Folio: What generally happens when one finishes the course; do the learners receive information about how they can use the language?
Chuck Smith: ‘There is a bonus course about Esperanto culture, which explains a lot, but for technical reasons, it will appear later. In the official forum of Esperanto at Duolingo you sometimes hear about cultural issues, but I imagine that one will hear more when the community there matures further.’