In the midst of an unthinkable crisis even the smallest offer of solace can provide a glimmer of relief.
When Utah resident Greg Murphy happened upon the scene of the Highway 22 car crash last September the solace he could offer was a language: Spanish. At the time Murphy — who is a former traffic accident investigator for the military — pulled over to the side of the road and witnessed a man, Manuel Barrera, attempting to pull his wife out of their car, where she was trapped.
Murphy rushed over to help. Once he was closer Murphy recognized that the couple conversing in Spanish. So he switched to their native tongue, despite what he felt was his “pretty simple” Spanish language skills at the time.
“I was able to talk to the Barreras and convince them to let me help,” Murphy said.
It took a few minutes for the father to be persuaded, since Mr. Barrera was shocked and injured himself.
Once Murphy and his son successfully extricated the wife from the car, Murphy “asked her about her family and her kids, just trying to calm her down, show a sense of humanity and get her thinking about something else other than being trapped inside the vehicle that was in danger of catching fire.”
He was also able to provide her a jacket, since she mentioned she was feeling cold.
The importance of learning
The experience moved Murphy to post his experience on a Duolingo forum, thanking the app for a “priceless skill.” The “awful situation” was a testament to the importance of knowing other languages, Murphy wrote on the site.
Learning Spanish has been a lifelong goal for Murphy. During his time in the U.S. Army he was able to pick up some of the language during a three-month deployment to Panama, and he studied Spanish for a year in college, but still “hardly knew much.” Before the pandemic began Murphy tried to maintain his Spanish knowledge by listening to Spanish radio stations and exposing himself to Spanish conversations as much as possible.
Despite these commitments to keeping Spanish in his life, Murphy said he didn’t make significant progress in his language skills until the pandemic hit.
“I’ve been on the Duolingo app for several years, but I hadn’t consistently started using it until the pandemic hit and I actually had more time,” Murphy said. “I had probably been practicing for around three months when the accident happened.”
Murphy wasn’t alone in his choice to start practicing regularly. The “2020 Duolingo Language Report: Global Overview” notes that 30 million people joined Duolingo following the World Health Organization’s official announcement recognizing COVID-19 as a global pandemic, a 67% increase from the number of new learners in the same span of time in 2019. The primary motivations for joining were school, work and brain training. Unsurprisingly, travel was a less popular incentive for learning languages.
In Jackson Hole language exchanges have solidified a sense of community during the pandemic as well. Language Exchange JH has been able to continue throughout the pandemic, according to Lina Collado, the family literacy manager at Teton Literacy Center. Language partners have primarily been meeting over the internet, with the occasional socially distanced, masked-up outside meetup for those who are comfortable. Outside of basic conversations, people have been cooking and playing games together, Collado said.
Historically the exchange has paired program applicants based on gender, availability and hobbies, creating partnerships that are beneficial beyond language learning.
“The biggest takeaway I’ve seen from this program, whether it’s in person or it’s virtual, is that it breaks the barriers in our community,” Collado said. “People get to know someone that they wouldn’t necessarily meet because they don’t speak the same language or they aren’t in the same places culturally within our community.”
Duolingo Senior Learning Scientist Cindy Blanco said people’s desires to bond with family and learn about new cultures have been a force behind the growing number of Duolingo students. The pandemic has made language learning an accessible way of connecting with the world and to each other, she added.
“We’ve been relying on other ways to connect with each other now,” Blanco said from her office in Pittsburgh over Zoom. “That could even be through music and movies — we see similar growth for these kinds of products. The anime categories on Netflix grew exponentially in the last year, and there is this Korean culture boom all around the world with K-pop, but also with Korean dramas.”
Personal importance is a common inspiration behind language learning. The other language Murphy is practicing on Duolingo is German, which he studies so he can communicate with his wife’s family. Murphy’s wife is able to speak five languages, but Spanish is not one, so Murphy likes to be able to help out when they travel to Spanish-speaking countries.
Murphy also enjoys being able to communicate with the 13% of people in the U.S. who speak Spanish as their first language.
“When I grew up, a lot of people that I was around had this attitude that we’re in America, so you have to speak English,” Murphy said. “I think that’s culturally insensitive. Having traveled around the world and seen the advantages of being able to speak other languages, I want to be able to speak in people’s native tongues.”
As Teton County residents get to know people outside of their usual social circles, opportunities present themselves, especially for Collado’s students in her English as a Second Language class, many of whom participate in the exchange. Since Collado knows her students personally through Teton Literacy Center, she is able to forge particularly meaningful matches within the language exchange program.
“I have one student who always wanted to be a pre-K teacher, and one of the English speakers was a pre-K teacher, ” Collado said. “So I paired them together so they could talk about that career, which is her dream job, and so they could bridge that feeling that ‘just because I came to the U.S. I have to find a random job, instead of being able to pursue my dreams.’”
“People get to know someone that they wouldn’t necessarily meet.” — Lina Collado teton literacy center