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When your true-crime pod teaches you Spanish

Andy Uhler Oct 22, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
People stuck at home during the pandemic are using their time on productive projects, like learning a new language. Fizkes/Getty Images

When your true-crime pod teaches you Spanish

Andy Uhler Oct 22, 2020
People stuck at home during the pandemic are using their time on productive projects, like learning a new language. Fizkes/Getty Images

With many parts of the country seeing spikes in coronavirus cases, reinstituting lockdowns in some form or fashion, a lot of people are stuck with time to fill. Many want to use that time to be productive, maybe learn a new language. 

That’s what the folks working for language learning apps are noticing. 

So with growing competition for users, developers are trying new ways to engage folks. Duolingo’s bid for more ears is a bilingual true-crime podcast.

The story is about a bank heist in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2006. 

“We knew that true crime was just such a popular genre,” said Michaela Kron, a spokesperson for Duolingo who worked on the podcast.

“We were trying to think through, really, how do we adapt this unique format that we’ve created for language learning, and adding this true crime element to kind of cross those over,” she said.

Clearly the pandemic presented an opportunity to grow the business. As lockdown orders came into place around the world in March, Kron said Duolingo saw a 100% increase in new users. 

Erik Linthorst has been trying to learn Spanish for about three years now. 

“I’ve spent thousands of dollars on language acquisition, some of which was a complete waste, and some of which was super valuable,” he said.

Linthorst said he used to use Duolingo quite a bit, but ran out of free content a while ago. The app is free, but you can pay for a subscription to unlock more stuff.

He’ll probably check out the Duolingo true crime podcast — as long as he doesn’t have to pay for it — but said there’s so much good free content on the internet already. 

Shawn Loewen, professor of second language acquisition at Michigan State University, said language programs tend to overpromise, whether you’re paying or not, but the long-form narrative might work.

“Any exposure to the target language is good,” he said. “If you understand the larger sense of things because part of it has been told to you in English, and then you hear something in Spanish, you’re more likely to understand that because you’re able to kind of fill in with some of your other background knowledge.”

Especially when it comes to vocabulary and simple phrases. 

Loewen said straddling the line of entertainment and education is something these apps do well, but whether you’ll be ready for that trip to Barcelona in 2022 is another question altogether.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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