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Duolingo is a popular, very useful, and (mostly) free app that promises to teach interested learners foreign languages. The app boasts millions of users worldwide, many of whom typically log on daily for lessons in any number of its 31 languages.
But one user was confused when the company’s Spanish lesson exercises contained phrases that some are calling flat out racist.
“My partner sent me these screenshots from their Spanish lesson today. Hey @duolingo can you please explain wtf this is about?” Aly Hassell tweeted to the company, along with screenshots of two phrases featured on the company’s daily Spanish lesson.
The phrases read, “Are they legal?” and “He has to be detained right now.”
Users responded to the tweet with confusion and outrage. “Duolingo is always on some other shit,” one user lamented.
Duolingo is always on some other shit— kayla | Кейла (@peruchakayla) September 23, 2019
I guess ICE agents want to learn Spanish too. Ugh.— white nationalism is anti-Christ (@nc_clair) September 24, 2019
Duolingo’s founder, Louis von Ahn, responded to the backlash by saying the phrases were “taken out of context” and explaining that they were removed from the site. He also reassured Twitter that the app wasn’t being intentionally racist.
“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,” he wrote. “We’ve removed them to avoid confusion. I myself am an immigrant from Guatemala, so this wasn’t the intended meaning!”
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
Yet many remained unconvinced. “Under what context would they even be considered ‘useful’ here? ‘Are they legal’??? Really?” one user questioned, with others echoing similar sentiments.
But under what context would they even be considered “useful” here? “Are they legal”??? Really?— shereen (@poetryandchai) September 24, 2019
But what context would ever make those sentences necessary?— rae (@awkrdlyfeminine) September 24, 2019
I appreciate your action and background, but those sentences should never have been in the app. They are hurtful to humanity.
This is not the first time the company has had to yank content. Back in 2018, Quartz explained that Duolingo started to rely on volunteers to produce the majority of its content, making it possible for “weird things to slip through the cracks.” The site alleged the phrases, “She raises her shirt” and “I am on my knees” were part of a French course provided to a user.
Tiffanie Drayton is a geek culture and lifestyle reporter whose work covers everything from gender and race to anime and Xbox. Her work has appeared in Complex, Salon, Marie Claire, Playboy, and elsewhere.