Diversity & Inclusion
Education / Partnerships

The Peace Corps and Duolingo are back at it again

Today the edtech company and the government-run volunteer program unveiled their Swahili course.

The new Peace Corps logo. (Photo via Twitter)

Branden Ryan arrived in Tanzania in 2013 as Peace Corps volunteer English teacher. Now he’s become something of a Swahili teacher.

It began, as many stories do, with a simple conversation. Ryan noticed another volunteer wearing a Duolingo shirt, and they got to talking about the company and its cool language-learning software. At the time, Ryan was using Duolingo to stay up-to-date with his Spanish skills. It was this other volunteer, the one in the Duolingo shirt, who parlayed this conversation into one with Patrick Choquette, director of innovation at Peace Corps. The two started discussing the possibility of creating a Duolingo course for an African language — something new for Duolingo.

It wasn’t a completely out-of-the-blue idea — Peace Corps volunteers who had been evacuated from Ukraine in 2014 were already working in partnership with Duolingo to create Ukrainian courses. And so the team decided they’d create a Swahili course (for English speakers), too.

It is, according to the Peace Corps, Duolingo’s first African language course.

The team of three core members, Ryan and two Swahili language instructors and Tanzanians employed by the Peace Corps, got to work in October 2015. The course is modeled after the course that the Swahili instructors give to all new arriving Peace Corps Tanzania volunteers. Currently in beta, the course supports text and writing, and the team hopes to add audio within the next month or two.

Of working with the Duolingo Incubator technology, Ryan says “it was easy once we got the hang of it.” Now his biggest challenge (as the team’s native English speaker) is editing — finding the unnatural translations and working with them. But he’s buoyed along by all the “enthusiasm and excitement from the whole Duolingo community.”

As with the Ukrainian courses before it, the Swahili course serves a dual purpose — it represents an additional language-learning mechanism for Peace Corps volunteers themselves as well as a (free) opportunity for others to engage with the language as well.

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