Winchester Thurston students help in development of Duolingo Latin course |
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Latin may be a dead language, but it is very much alive on Duolingo.

The Pittsburgh-based language learning company debuted it first Latin course for English speakers Wednesday.

Nearly 24,000 people had signed up for notifications about the course before it even launched, according to Duolingo.

The project started a little less than a year ago when Duolingo invited David Seward, a Latin teacher at Winchester Thurston Upper School in Shadyside, to lunch.

“We got to talking, and I got into this diatribe about a Latin course on Duolingo,” Seward said, remembering the lunch conversation.

In December of 2018, Duolingo reached back out to Seward, telling him that they had been impressed with his enthusiasm and were planning to create the course with his help.

The course will be accessible through Duolingo’s website and on Apple and Android phones. The course is designed for beginners and anyone else needing a basic to intermediate level refresher on Latin. Latin is Duolingo’s 91st course. The app offers everything from Spanish to Mandarin to Klingon to High Valyrian from Game of Thrones.

Hope Wilson, a learning scientist at Duolingo, explained that despite Latin being considered a “dead” language, there are plenty of people interested in learning.

“Ever since Duolingo launched in 2012, we’ve gotten requests to launch virtually every language that’s out there. Latin was one that kept coming up over and over again, so we knew the demand would be there to take the course,” said Wilson. “Also, we saw many benefits to offering it on our platform, especially since having knowledge of Latin can help a lot with learning some of our other languages, such as the Romance languages.”

Polyglots, admirers of the classics and students trying to improve their English for standardized tests like the SATs are among those thoroughly invested in mastering Latin.

Development of the course started in February and required elaborate coordination between Duolingo, the non-profit Paideia Institute and Seward and his students at Winchester Thurston. The Paideia Institute, which focuses on classical languages, with a heavy concentration on Latin, had also reached out to Duolingo about creating a Latin course.

“The main hope was raising more awareness about Latin. We were excited about the opportunity to reach out to so many people through Duolingo’s fun and popular platform. And we were excited about the deal of an approach to experimental Latin,” said Jason Pedicone, who contacted to Duolingo through a professor of information science at Cornell University about creating a Latin course.

The teams communicated through weekly calls and conversations in Slack. Duolingo’s learning scientists offered their expertise in teaching languages and helped design the curricula for Duolingo courses.

The collaborators submitted their work through a program called the Duolingo Incubator. It allowed the team to add words, sentences, phrases and translations. The vocabulary and subject matter were mostly worked on by people with doctorate degrees at the Paideia Institute.

Duolingo courses rely on teaching translations through prompted words, sentences and phrases. The task of generating the specific sentences for this course was largely Seward’s and his students’ contribution to the project.

Seward said that he and his students came up with a whopping total of 3,000 sentences for the Latin course. Some are sillier than others. Seward’s students got pretty creative.

“There’s one about a drunk parrot,” Seward said.

The Paideia Institute and the Winchester Thurston students worked well together, said Marco Romani, the outreach manager for the Paideia Institute and part of the Latin team.

“You could say there was a bit of a friendly competition between us and David’s class as to who wrote the largest number of sentences,” said Romani.

The students also had the task of refining the English translations, and this task may continue after the course is released, Seward said. He intends for the students to interact with the course material themselves.

“The idea now is to get as many people to take the course to find ways to improve it,” Seward said. “They’re going to be able to improve the course by offering alternative translations. My students are aces at finding ways to translate in ways I wouldn’t have thought of. The course just gets better and better.”

Wilson said working on the course was interesting “on both a professional and personal level.” Wilson took Latin in high school and was able to re-immerse herself in the language through the project.

“As with all of our courses, this one assumes no starting knowledge of the language,” said Wilson. “The beginning skills are designed to help learners be able to communicate in the Latin language, which means teaching useful phrases and conversational skills right off the bat. After spending a few hours with the course you should be able to introduce yourself, ask questions and hold a very basic conversation in spoken Latin. Learners will also understand the basics of Latin grammar, and they’ll gain a solid base of Latin vocabulary.”

Duolingo wouldn’t talk about future projects, but both Seward and the Paideia Institute expressed great interest in working with Duolingo again.

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