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.
— 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.