You can now learn two of Africa’s most widely spoken languages on an app

Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn
Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn
Image: EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun
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Cape Town

Everyone’s favorite language app is now teaching Swahili, Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn announced on stage at the Design Indaba conference. Added to that, Zulu will be the next African language available, he told the cheering crowd in Cape Town.

Swahili launched on Friday (Mar.3) Ahn told Quartz. The launch date for the Zulu platform is not yet certain, but it is already in development he added.

Building a Swahili platform took six to nine months, working with the Peace Corps, said von Ahn. The humanitarian mission has in the past helped Duolngo identify which languages were necessary and Peace Corps workers said they needed to learn Swahili to do their work, said the Duolingo co-founder.

For a while now, Duolingo’s users have been asking “Where’s Swahili?” Spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Comoros islands and in parts in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, it’s the lingua franca of some of the world’s fastest developing economic regions along the eastern African coast. But more than that, the language crosses borders and cultures.

The number of people who speak Kiswahili, as Swahili is also known, is already on the increase thanks to media and trade, cementing its status as a regional tongue. In 2015, Tanzania dumped English in favor of Swahili as the official language in its schools, and earlier this year Rwanda’s parliament approved steps to make Swahili an official language.

Deciding which language platform to build comes from user requests and the company received a large number of appeals for Zulu from outside of South Africa, said von Ahn. Users also asked for Afrikaans he added, which may come next. Zulu is spoken by the highest number of South Africans and is understood in neighboring countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The free mobile and computer app asks users to spend just five minutes a day learning a language using a simple game-like interface that grades each students personal progress. Duolingo has helped refuges navigate their host countries and helped migrants find work, said von Ahn.

In Africa, it could build commercial and cultural bridges.