Things That Matter

Language Learning App Duolingo Has Been Teaching Phrases Like ‘He has to be detained right now’ In Spanish

It seems like everyday we uncover stories of discrimination and racism towards communities of color. This week the story stems from the most unthinkable source. One of the world’s most popular language-learning apps, Duolingo, served up two very problematic sentences to a user. His girlfriend took to Twitter to let everyone know.

Needless to say that Twitter was not having it.

Two xenophobic statements popped up on a user’s language-learning app and this is why they’re hurtful.

The fact that sentences like: “Are they legal?” and “He has to be detained right now.” can appear on Duolingo has us floored. They may not be explicitly referring to immigration issues, but the choice of words used is loaded with anti-immigration rhetoric. The word “illegal” carries major stigma in a time of pervasive and systematic civil rights violations against immigrants in the United States. Not to mention the weight that a phrase like “He has to be detained right now” carries in a country where at least 2,654 migrant children – and perhaps thousands more – were taken from their parents and held in government custody while their parents were criminally prosecuted for crossing the border unlawfully.

Duolingo was quick to respond to the backlash on Twitter, arguing that the sentence “Are they legal?” did not refer to people but rather questioned the legality of objects namely “firearms.”

In Spanish, “ellos” refers to people, the sentence is clearly about humans.

However, as several Spanish-speaking users noted on the social platform, the structure of the sentence in Spanish, “¿Son ellos legales?”, leaves no room for doubt on whether or not it’s referring to things as opposed to people. If we go back to Spanish grammar 101, Duolingo should know that the use of the plural personal pronoun “ellos” (they) instead of the demonstratives: “eso/esas” or “aquello” (those or that), to point to things, like guns or drugs, make it clear that this sentence is questioning the legality of a human subject. In simpler words, in Spanish “ellos”: refers to people, “esos” to things.

As one twitter user pointed out, “the exercise is not only grammatically incorrect, it leaves it open to a dangerous interpretation.”

Duolingo crowdsources its content from volunteers, and no scarcely anybody moderates what makes it onto the app.

What’s more, it looks like Duolingo’s been slipping on their content for a while now. According to an article published last year on the apps crowdsourcing’s strategy; “The startup has built one of the world’s most popular language-learning apps while only hiring a handful of translators.” Each day the platform serves up millions of sentences, “almost all of them created by its 300 or so volunteers.”

According to Quartz, “more than half” of Duolingo’s employees work in engineering, while “just three people manage the volunteer community”. The app makes this system work by appointing “volunteer moderators”, who apply through the website to oversee content in each language. The company claims that volunteers “are vetted for language skills, and then trained on subjects from pedagogy to guidance dealing with gender, diversity, and cultural sensitivity issues.”

As recent stories of neglectful treatment of migrants, civil rights violations, discriminatory behavior and racial profiling, have become the norm in the media—result of an anti-immigration administration—it’s troubling that this intolerant rhetoric is now visible in apps that are meant for ‘educational’ purposes and that claim to have ‘guidance on diversity and cultural sensitivity issues’.

It’s no coincidence that ever since Donald Trump became President of the United States, there has been a spike in hate speech and crime—and the numbers only continue to climb. A survey of Mexicans recently deported from the United States found that the number of people who reported experiencing verbal abuse or physical assault during their time in the U.S. increased by 47% between 2016 and 2017.

Founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, a Guatemalan immigrant himself, chimed in to the conversation on Twitter, commenting that the two statements “didn’t appear next to eachother” and “were taken out of context”. He assured users that the statements were removed from the app to “avoid confusion”.

If no one is policing the sentences that go up on Duolingo, are children safe to use the app?

But what context would ever make those two sentences necessary in an educational app? They are grammatically incorrect and hurtful. No human is ever illegal. The very object of hate speech is to deprive people of the assurance that society regards them as people of equal dignity. Why is this instance of ‘indirect’ hate speech so important? Precisely because the public conception of immigrants and communities of color, specifically Latinx communities, is constantly under fire, and further feeds into a climate of fear.

As one twitter user put it, it makes you think twice before letting your 8th grader use the app to learn a new language. If xenophobic statements like these can pop up at any time, with no real policing of incorrect, racist or straight-up inappropriate content, then what’s the point of Duolingo even having a ‘content policy’ at all? As a Guatemalan, von Ahn should do better.

The U.S. Offers To Lift Crippling Sanctions Against Venezuela In New Plan, But There’s A Major Catch

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The U.S. Offers To Lift Crippling Sanctions Against Venezuela In New Plan, But There’s A Major Catch

Anadolu Agency / Getty

The coronavirus isn’t stopping the United States from continuing its maximum pressure campaign on Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. 

For well over a year, Venezuela has suffered from a massive political crisis. President Nicolas Maduro clings to power as a growing number of foreign countries (including the U.S.) recognize his main competitor, Juan Guaidó, who has declared himself interim-President.

But as the country struggles to confront a growing Coronavirus pandemic, the international community is imploring the Trump administration to ease sanctions of the struggling nation. Many are concerned over its spread amid a collapsing health care system and a deep economic crisis, aggravated by U.S. sanctions and low oil prices.

The Trump administration is prepared to lift crippling sanctions on Venezuela in support of a new proposal to form a transitional government.

Credit: Kenneth Rapoza / Getty

However, getting both Maduro and Guaidó to buy into the plan – let alone millions of Venezuelans – will be an immense challenge. Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó would both have to step aside in favor of a five-person governing council, according to U.S. officials familiar with the plan.

Under the “democratic transition framework”, all political prisoners would be released, and all foreign – mostly Cuban – forces would leave. A five-member council would be selected, with two members chosen by the opposition, two by Maduro’s Socialist party, and the fifth member picked by the other four.

“The hope is that this set-up promotes the selection of people who are very broadly respected and known as people who can work with the other side,” the US special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told the Associated Press.

The U.S. has long pushed for regime change in Venezuela and this could be a major step towards achieving this policy.

“The United States has long been committed to finding a solution to the manmade crisis in Venezuela,” the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said.

“The urgency for this has become all the more serious in light of the Maduro regime’s failure to adequately prepare for and address the global Covid-19 pandemic. This framework demonstrates our commitment to helping Venezuela fully recover and ensures that the voice of the Venezuelan people is respected and included.”

The plan would mean the end of the Maduro regime and the likely withdrawal of his largest competitor.

Credit: Elizabeth Melimopoulos / Getty

Since early 2019, Venezuela has been in the throes of a political crisis with two clashing sides vowing to take back control of the country. Millions of people have poured into the streets in support of one side or the other – often resulting in violent flare ups that have left thousands dead.

But could the promise of zero sanctions against a struggling economy be enough to make the plan work?

Credit: @carmses_in / Twitter

The US and EU would then lift sanctions on the current leadership. Broader sanctions on the country’s oil business would be lifted after all foreign forces had left the country. All sanctions would be lifted after free elections, to be held within six to 12 months.

“The basic outline is simple: We call for a transitional government that would govern for nine to 12 months and hold free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections,” U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told reporters Tuesday. “The United States will recognize the result of a free and fair election no matter which party wins.”

The proposal comes five days after the U.S. indicted Maduro and top members of his government and army for drug trafficking and money laundering.

The Department of Justice indicted Maduro and many of his right-hand men on a range of charges, all but guaranteeing they will not be part of any potential democratic transition in Venezuela down the line.

The indictment for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to corruption to narcoterrorism puts the spotlight on the horrendous acts Maduro and his associates have allegedly perpetrated.

In addition to giving the U.S. additional leverage over Maduro, the indictment also acts as an incentive for the 14 individuals charged along with him — and others close to him — to cooperate with U.S. authorities.

The plan has his critics on both sides of the aisle.

Skeptics of the plan said it provided few incentives for the incumbent officials to give up power, days after they were charged with serious offences and multimillion-dollar rewards put on their heads.

The ultimate focus must be on alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people, and though it will not be eased by these recent actions alone, the only way forward is to address the root causes of the crisis, starting with Maduro.

Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno “Jokes” Women Report Rape Only When Assailants Are Ugly

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Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno “Jokes” Women Report Rape Only When Assailants Are Ugly

THE GUARDIAN / INSTAGRAM

It’s a tale as old as time and one with a well-overdue expiration date.

Once again, victims– namely women– of sexual assault are being shamed into silence because of jokes that have not been well thought out. This time, Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno is the mouth behind the quip that deserves no laughs.

In a recent speech delivered in the city of Guayaquil, Moreno claimed women-only complain about assaults when the perpetrator is unattractive.

Speaking to investors in the port city, Moreno appeared to defend men accused of harassment saying “at times, with harassment, they torment ugly people. That is to say, that the harassment is when it comes from an ugly person,” he went onto add that “if the person looks good according to the standards, they tend not to think necessarily that it is harassment.”

Fortunately, the responses to Moreno’s disdainful comments were quick, unforgiving, and loud.

Women’s rights activist groups and other organizations quickly lambasted the already controversial president for his snide and noxious comments.

In a tweet posted to her Instagram account, Ecuador’s governing party congresswoman Soledad Buendía condemned Moreno, writing on Twitter that the president’s comments “justifies and reproduces violence against women. You can’t joke about harassment, rape, femicide, trafficking, sexual exploitation … Nothing justifies expressions that revictimize us!”

According to the Guardian, the Women for Change organization were quick to join in the conversation.

“It is not that everything now looks to women like harassment, it is that to machos like you it has never seemed bad to harass!” the organization tweeted.

Soon after the backlash hit, Moreno attempted to apologize.

In a tweet posted to his account, Moreno wrote an apology saying “In my comment about harassment, I did not intend to minimize such a serious matter as violence or abuse. I apologize if it was understood that way. I reject violence against women in all its forms!”

According to a comparative analysis published in the 2008 book Violence Against Women, 32.4% of Ecuadorian women interviewed aged 15-49 stated they had been physically or sexually abused by a current or former partner. Clearly, this is no laughing matter.