Swahili is spoken by more than 100 million people worldwide, and is the national language of many African countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now, the traditionally coastal language has been launched as the first African language course on free language-learning platform Duolingo. We spoke to CEO and founder Luis von Ahn ahead of his Design Indaba talk.
“We’re really excited about launching Swahili on Duolingo, our first ever African language course. While we’d love to offer every language in the world, our resources are limited and we have to be selective,” said von Ahn. “In 1992, Swahili became a required subject in primary schools in Uganda, and it’s also a distinct academic discipline in many public and private universities. This means that Swahili will remain a key language for the next generation of leaders, as well as consumers.”
The interactive platform combines gaming and learning, attracting 170 million users worldwide. It’s also the most downloaded app in the Education category in most countries.
“There are more people learning languages on Duolingo in the US than people learning languages in the entire US public school system today. It’s used by education ministries in developing countries and some of the wealthiest people in the world alike,” adds von Ahn.
According to von Ahn, the new course took shape through a collaboration with the Peace Corps in a development process that began in October 2015 with the help of 4 volunteers in Tanzania.
“Now, after 17 months of hard work, we’re excited to officially launch this course! We have more than 44,000 users on the waiting list who are eager to learn Swahili,” says von Ahn. As far as we can tell, this course also represents the most widespread access for free Swahili language education that has ever existed.”
“Additionally, the team that created the course noted that when Peace Corps volunteers in Tanzania speak Swahili, they become more effective in the communities they serve and earn more respect from local people as a result of speaking the language.”
Through the launch, von Ahn hopes to inspire empathy and understanding through language learning.
“It can feel like speaking different languages divides us, but we hope that learning new languages helps to mitigate the fear and prejudice that comes from a lack of understanding other cultures,” he adds.