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.

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