Duolingo, the popular language-learning app, is continuing its foray into teaching non-Western languages to English speakers. After launching Japanese and Chinese this year, it will release an Arabic course next March, Quartz has confirmed. The company—which has 200 million users and is many people’s starting point for learning new languages—says that Arabic has been one of its most requested courses.
This marks yet another of Duolingo’s recent efforts to teach languages with scripts that don’t use the Roman alphabet. One of the biggest challenges with its Japanese and Chinese courses was helping users get a feel for those languages’ character-based writing systems. Arabic will have its own set of difficulties, with a script that runs right-to-left and is unfamiliar to most native English speakers. It also adds to Duolingo’s list another of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
Arabic presents another challenge: It differs greatly from one country to another. While “Arabic” is technically spoken by over 400 million people, these break down into various dialects and varieties that are often not mutually intelligible. As linguist John McWhorter writes, “A Moroccan’s colloquial ‘Arabic’ is as different from the colloquial ‘Arabic’ of Jordan as Czech is from Polish.”
Duolingo will be teaching “Modern Standard Arabic,” a kind of umbrella that is modeled closely on the language of the Koran, and which speakers of different dialects use to communicate. That umbrella, though, is not really used colloquially in any one place.
That gets back to some general advice on using Duolingo. It’s a great resource, especially for getting started with a new language. But it should not really be used in isolation, as Quartz explored in our breakdown of its Chinese course. If you’re planning to use the new Arabic module, you’ll probably want to supplement it with material on the local dialect of a place you’re interested in.
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