Zulu and Xhosa in the South African context

Zulu and Xhosa are two of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and among the most widely spoken languages in South African homes (23% and 16% respectively, followed by Afrikaans at around 14%. Around 10% of people speak English at home).

While the South African government is piloting the use of mother-tongue language instruction at more schools, most use English or Afrikaans as their language of instruction, with African languages as electives  Accessing tools and resources to further learn the other languages is difficult, because most books in the country are published in English and Afrikaans, says Huston. “Everybody needs to learn English, but surely we should also be learning isiZulu,” she says, calling the South African language by its local name.

Being both Bantu languages of the Nguni people, Zulu and Xhosa are mutually intelligible, and their shared grammar, structure, and vocabulary, is part of the reason Duolingo decided to add them both, according to Katie Huston, Nal’ibali’s chief operating officer.

Dr. Luis van Ahn presents on the new languages being added to Duolingo.
Image: Duolingo

More African-language courses

The addition of Zulu and Xhosa, expected in early 2022, will bring to three the number of African-language courses offered by Duolingo. The Swahili course, which was added in 2017, has 363,000 active users.

For these two language projects, Duolingo will bring expertise on how to build engaging language learning courses using its tools, learning experts, and a curriculum design team, Awodey says. Nal’ibali, she adds, will help find people who will be best suited for the roles of content creation and overall planning, as well as getting community feedback from learners and native speakers for the testing phase, which is an important part of the Duolingo’s curriculum developments.

It’s “just super exciting to see more resources that are elevating and equalizing [our] languages,” Awodey says.

Trevor Noah, for his part, told Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn in a discussion about languages and the new offerings that he is “truly excited for Zulu and Xhosa [to be added]. Xhosa because I want to start learning it, and speaking it fluently. And then Zulu, just so I can brush up while I’m not in my country.”

But, he adds, “you’re gonna need a whole section in Xhosa just to teach people about the clicks.”

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