Artifact Politics

In the last decades, countless numbers of new technologies have been developed – the one I would like to focus on is Duolingo, or more generally, the development of free language-learning software. For those unaware, Duolingo is a website that allows you to learn languages through various quizzes and games, and there is a progression in what you learn. There are many languages available, from the common ones such as Spanish and French, to the less well-known, such as Dutch and Swedish. Personally, I have completed both the Spanish and Portuguese programs, and am currently starting on French. While you probably won’t become fluent if exclusively using Duolingo and not supplementing your learning with other sources (I am a Spanish minor, and take Portuguese classes, so I use it as a more supplemental source), it can provide a solid base to learning a language, as well as the tools necessary to improve and apply the language to real life.(1) (There is one section of the website entirely dedicated to translating articles.)

While one may not expect language-learning software to have politics, I do believe that Duolingo, and other similar resources, does have very specific political and social implications. (And generally, I also believe that they are beneficial) Primarily, it encourages the globalization and cultural exchange that has become prevalent in the late 20th and 21st centuries, without the classist implications that are provided by other, pricer options such as Rosetta Stone. Free opportunities to learn languages encourages those who may lack other resources to gain skills that may otherwise be uncommon, and this can help to set people apart in the workforce and give them opportunities for advancement. In addition to career opportunities that Duolingo may provide, it also helps to allow for deeper cultural exchange, whether through travel to different countries, or through interaction with immigrants in one’s home country. Furthermore, through the facilitating of cultural exchange, one might say that Duolingo disrupts the traditional “tourism” mentality that some Americans may have, and encourages the sharing of knowledge and experiences globally. Finally, a key impact that duolingo has is that it doesn’t just have courses for english speakers – you can learn English from Tagalog, or French from German. This opens up opportunities worldwide, and might even help to facilitate understanding and peace.

Another social impact that Duolingo may have is that it encourages grassroots movements that could be seen as democratic. Every course on Duolingo is written by contributors – if you’re bilingual in the languages they are creating the course for, you are welcome to help. Furthermore, those that use the course to learn are able to report things that they notice are incorrect, or suggest additional translations (which can be corrected or adjusted and voted on by the community as a whole). This creates a community effort of people working toward a common goal – learning languages and broadening their horizons, so to speak.

However, there is one political aspect of Duolingo that potentially does not lead to progress – it’s Western focus. As a whole, the most resources are available for those who already speak English, and those resources are generally focused on the areas that are already developed economically. There are no opportunities for English-speakers to learn languages that don’t use our alphabet. (Though Russian is being developed.) Though this is partially expected, as Duolingo was started in the United States, the process of expansion has been quite slow. (This may also be attributed to the grassroots nature of the technology.) Additionally, as the Economist describes, it’s clientele may be limited by its style of teaching.(1) Still, despite this potential failing, the opportunities that are created through programs that help people to learn languages are innumerable. They can encourage globalization, and the sense of community on a planet of 7 billion people.

Kathryn Gasior

Image Source: http://www.duolingo.com

1. The Economist: “Review: Babbel and Duolingo.” http://www.economist.com. 13 June 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Artifact Politics”

  1. Wow, this sounds really cool and is a technology that I have never heard about before nor would have thought of to write about. I agree that the increased ability to learn new languages opens so many opportunities for communication worldwide. This technology does however take some self motivation to take advantage of. It can be seen as some as “extra work” where as many popular technologies aim to decrease the users amount of work. However, I think this is an attitude flaw in today’s culture. I definitely think that this technology’s aim of actually teaching a language is much more valuable (and probably more accurate) than the programs that simply translate text on demand.

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  2. I agree that in more ways than one, Duolingo has democratic traits. Not only is it free and available to many people, but the fact that it grows from contributors means people can come together in order to improve the program. It will hopefully continue to expand as more languages are added and it becomes more democratic.

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