In one of their Spanish lesson exercises, the popular language learning app Duolingo included a prompt asking users to translate the sentences, “¿Son ellos legales?” (“Are they legal?”) and “Él tienen que ser detenido ahora.” (“He needs to be detained now.”) These prompts quickly raised red flags for one user whose husband is using the app. On Tuesday morning, Duolingo has deleted these phrases from their app.
My partner sent me these screenshots from their Spanish lesson today. Hey @duolingo can you please explain wtf this is about? pic.twitter.com/WTlKJ1VgDO
— Aly Hassell (@AlyHassell) September 23, 2019
We at Latino Rebels couldn’t help but wonder, what are you trying to say about the Spanish-speaking community that someone learning Spanish would need to know that? We reached out to Duolingo both on Twitter and via email for comment.
Here is what Duolingo first told us via Twitter:
is there an explanation as to why? we reached out to the press team and would like to know the following
1) Why was it there in the first place?
2) How did you all know to remove it?
3) Is there a statement etc?
We would like to file a story, thank you.
— Latino Rebels (@latinorebels) September 24, 2019
In a subsequent follow-up email, the company said that while they removed the prompt, the phrase “they are illegal” doesn’t refer to people, but can be referring to objects.
Here’s their explanation from Sam Dalsimer, Duolingo’s PR manager:
“For context, the sentence ‘they are illegal’ does not necessarily refer to people, and we don’t believe that was the intended meaning in this case. ‘They’ also refers to objects (like weapons). These sentences were in no way intended to express an opinion, but we understand that in juxtaposition next to each other how it may appear otherwise. The verb ‘detained’ can also be translated as ‘arrested’ and we removed this as well because it can easily be taken out of context.”
Dalsimer added that Duolingo is created by volunteer contributors:
The language content in most Duolingo courses is created by volunteer contributors. This community-driven model has helped us scale free language education to millions of people and offer 91 courses. We vet the contributor teams to ensure their language proficiency and commitment to the ongoing process of creating and maintaining a course. Each Duolingo course contains around 20,000 sentence examples and we occasionally see instances like this where multiple sentences, when juxtaposed next to each other, create an unintended meaning.”
“We provide contributor teams with support and are involved in the curriculum design, QA, testing and review of course materials. Part of the training for contributors includes guidance on creating sentence examples that are diverse, inclusive and culturally sensitive, and they also agree to a code of conduct. Once a course is launched, its contributor team continues to update and improve the course based on user feedback and input from our learning and research teams. In certain cases, like this one, we move quickly to remove content that seems questionable. We first became aware of these sentence examples based on the tweet you referenced from @AlyHassell.”
About two hours after we got the statement from Dalsimer and just as we were about to publish the story, we received this additional response from him, clarifying that the sentence was not referring to objects:
“After consulting with other Spanish speakers here, I was wrong that the sentence in question could refer to objects. There were other sentences in this lesson (called “Adjectives”) that do refer to objects and teach the adjective for legal—for example asking if the firearms are legal. Our CEO has also responded to this:”
Hi, I’m the founder of @duolingo. These two sentences didn’t appear next to each other, so taken out of context I can see why they may send the wrong message. We’ve removed them to avoid confusion. I myself am an immigrant from Guatemala, so this wasn’t the intended meaning!
— Luis von Ahn (@LuisvonAhn) September 24, 2019
Ok, so the sentence WAS referring to people in the first place? That’s what we thought.
This isn’t the first instance where Duolingo users have noticed some odd and brow-raising questions or prompts. During the French course, at one point, “She raises her shirt” and “I am on my knees” were part of a course provided to one user. For instances where this happens, Duolingo does have a “report” button.
Still, we can’t help but wonder if this community-built model works when teaching a language, even when you risk potentially dehumanizing the very people that speak the language being taught.
This is a pretty clear example of people looking to get offended over nothing.
Your mistake is that you think this is about being “offended.” It’s deeper than that. Thanks for playing.
What is the deeper meaning then? I’m with Tim, it seems like a mountain out of a molehill situation. Especially this line: “Ok, so the sentence WAS referring to people in the first place? That’s what we thought.” Which was stated after a tweet from the founder that in no way confirms what you are saying.
With this hit piece, you are insulting the work of hundreds of committed volunteer contributors, toiling month by month to create free courses for everyone. We created Arabic courses when the Syrian crisis hit. On a daily basis, we are fighting homophobic comments in the sentence discussions of sentences like “Her wife is beautiful”.
What you’re doing is shameful. You could have sorted this out easily by contacting Duo. Instead this. Please let’s take a step back, and fight together for equal rights.
FYI, as the story says, we DID contact Duolingo both on Twitter and via email and we reported what they told us. So to suggest that this is a “hit piece” is not accurate. We ran Duolingo’s two statements as well as the founder’s tweet, which by the way, happened AFTER we contacted Duolingo for comment. Thanks for the comment but to diminish a legitimate concern from people who told us about it is not the way to “fight together.” Duolingo acknowledged its mistake and deleted the phrases. Good. Thanks.
You have unleashed a baseless shitstorm which is currently taking over Newsweek and other outlets. This is harmful. I am questioning your bad-faith approach in dealing with a company which is a vanguard of equal rights. If you like to hit people, hit those that deserve it. Believe me, there are enough roaming the streets 🙁
I understand you, like me, are so used to fight in the trenches of racism, bigotism etc., that you had a false alarm getting off. Mistakes happen. But my honest opinion is that instead of doubling down, you should apologize for the harm you have done. Or at least state publicly that you barked up the wrong tree. You created a scandal where there was none. It’s easy to misconstrue something out of most sentences. “I am on my knees” is offensive to whom, atheists? Is this the world we want to live in?
We aren’t “releasing” anything. We wrote a story after talking to Duolingo and getting them on record. Our community and readers tipped us about the sentences and there was interest in having us contact Duolingo. Duolingo went on record, admitted their mistake and deleted the examples. If you have an issue with the Newsweek piece, contact them. We stand by our story and Duolingo actually thanked us for reaching out to them.
»Still, we can’t help but wonder if this community-built model works when teaching a language, even when you risk potentially dehumanizing the very people that speak the language being taught.«
You are shitting on a community of hundreds of unpaid volunteers here, who are toiling away for years to improve the lives of people, because of two misunderstood sentences. I don’t think how much pain you are causing with utterings like these. But it’s not your problem, right? Some social warriors you are…
Yeah, that is the take. The sentence referred to people being “legal.” Any native Spanish speaker can tell you that. Even the head of Duolingo concurred. Good for Duolingo for deleting it. Maybe the volunteer who did that will learn from it. Thanks.
Hey Rebels, did you just delete my comment? Could you please elaborate on the reasons?
It’s there now, no worries 🙂 Feel free to delete this comment and the one at (6)
[…] Latino Rebels reported on a woman whose husband was using the app and found a Spanish lesson that asked users to translate the sentences, “¿Son ellos legales?” (“Are they legal?”) and “Él tienen que ser detenido ahora.” (“He needs to be detained now.”) […]
This might be the most poorly written article this month… You guys need to use your journalism skills for something useful. Stop wasting dev time making a fuss out of nothing.
Thanks for the love. We got Duolingo to go on record, so we stand by it. Thanks!
I think that there was never any intention on the part of Duolingo to promote hate. I am using it to learn Spanish and have found it useful and not at all offensive. Considering it is built by volunteers, I think they are doing a great job at breaking language barriers. The best way to fight racism is to learn a language and the rich heritages and culture of its people. This seems more like a random shot at people who are not racist. I am offended because a lot of people like myself rely on this free app to begin their journey in learning a new language. People count on this app. It’s more like you are trying to shut down this app.
PS, we never said in our piece that this was racist. Can you please show us exactly where we say that this is racist? We reported a story. Duolingo went on record. They appreciated the ask. They learned from it. Everybody wins.
LOL, if you think we have the power to shut down an app, you are missing the point of this.
Nobody is questioning intention. But it still happened. And people learned for it. Great.
Duolingo provides a way to deal with problematic content by reporting it via the app… why didn’t you use it? Oh right, because it won’t give you the clicks, won’t let you cash in on the stink. You should have acknowledged that Duolingo dealt with this very quickly and effectively, on par with the rest of the awesome work they are doing. Instead you chose to conclude with lame comments about “dehumanizing”. This kind of bad faith non-journalism is making the world worse for everyone. You are the problem here, not Duolingo. “Rebels”, my ass 🙁
One of our editors use the reporting tool, Mike, but Duolingo also responded to our question on Twitter and its head of PR went on record and contacted us for a comment. So we wrote a story. Sorry it bothers you so much and all you do is resort to mocking us. We stand by the story. Que lo pases bien.
Yes it bothers me and I’ll tell you exactly why. Developing language materials is a very complicated balancing act between quality, scope, and price. Prior to Duolingo you could choose between cheap and crappy fly-by-night courses or professionally created/curated material like Pimsleur – awesome in quality but only available for a handful of major languages (eight at most?) and also costing $800 for a full course. Duolingo is groundbreaking in hitting all three marks: it’s free, it covers dozens of languages including endangered ones like Navajo and Hawaiian, and the quality is very high, especially for a crowdsourced material. There are millions of users and the sort of “problems” that you are bending over backwards to find are extremely rare. Duolingo is doing a massive net public good that you useless twits can only dream about. Have you acknowledged any of this in the article? No. Why? Is it because you are clueless assholes, ignorant of how hard it is to do something actually useful for the people? Is it because you have no idea that real journalism is accurate research and unbiased presentation and not feigning outrage for clicks? You keep repeating in the comments how “people learned for it”, but evidently YOU haven’t learned anything. Lose the smug and apologize!
Thanks for the personal insults. We stand by the story. Thanks for the comment.
FWIW I am not affiliated with Duolingo in any way, only a user who logged 18 months of daily use, and who credits Duo with my Spanish going from zero to B2.
Awesome good for you.
El,ella,ellos y ella son pronombres de la tercera persona que se refieren a personas o cosas inanimadas.
Eso es la opinión de la real academia de español. Si tienes problema con eso, háblale a ella. Fíjense ella se refiere al la academia no a una persona.
Me parece que los rebeles latinos deben estudiar español antes de hacer comentarios.
While you want to personally attack us, we are very aware of the rule and usage, and as native Spanish speakers, the usage is extremely rare and weird AND if you actually look at the Du0lingo volunteer forum, it also concurs: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/17525597/Proper-use-of-Ellos?fbclid=IwAR27eF4LSGKQgCdSE924zBKKNAeMQ2VF-Gp-MplNsgjNjZPDPLMglagtgjs Thanks.
Part of the problem as well is that this exercise is framing this for non-Spanish speakers. It jumps out and we were just reporting what (wait for it) actual users were saying. Thanks for your comment.