FIU professor and student get Haitian Creole on Duolingo

Nyya Flores Toussaint came to Miami in 2013 knowing less than 20 words of Haitian Creole. Now, he’s fluent and helping others learn it.

Toussaint, along with Florida International University Professor Nicolas André, developed a Haitian Creole class for English speakers as part of a fellowship to learn languages at FIU, publishing the course on Duolingo in February.

“I take pride in seeing people learning the language,” said André, a founder of Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen, or the Haitian Creole Academy, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The academy is responsible for regulating Haitian Creole.

Duolingo, a popular digital language-learning platform, offers almost 40 language-learning courses for English-speaking learners.

Starting at ground zero, Toussaint and André began developing the course in 2017 and reached out to Duolingo to publish it. It was the ideal platform for them because it’s free for users and uses a fun approach to learning.

“Duolingo uses gamification, so it feels like a game,” said Toussaint. “You’re competing every week to get up the scoreboard, and it’s right on your phone, or on your laptop or on your iPad.”

At the time, the platform was run by volunteers. The pair needed to get their course approved on the site and to do that they needed to get in touch.

“That literally only happened through finding the very few Duolingo employees on LinkedIn and messaging them,” said Toussaint.

Funding from Toussaint’s fellowship helped pay for their efforts, and in five years Toussaint and André presented their work to the world.

Haitian Creole is one of the three most-spoken languages in South Florida, making the course a valuable asset. Further, with millions of Haitians living around the world, learning Haitian Creole is the next step for many to greater connections and job opportunities.

André, who teaches French and Haitian Creole, recalled one graduate student who took Creole with him at Indiana University.

“When Katrina struck in Louisiana, I think he found a job because he was able to speak Haitian Creole, so he was able to help a lot of people,” said André.

Having the language on Duolingo provides many of those same opportunities for even more people.

“This democratizes access to this language that is spoken by a very significant majority of Haitian immigrants and the people who my colleagues intend to work with,” said Nathalie Frédéric Pierre, an African Diaspora historian at Howard University who works with Creole speakers.

The path to developing the course wasn’t an easy one. Toussaint, who is of Haitian descent, grew up in New Jersey without really learning Creole, later moving to Miami.

“Many immigrant families go through the struggle of having to learn English…thus not having the time to teach their United States-born children their heritage language,” Toussaint said.

From 1804 to 1987, French was Haiti’s official language, but Creole was the language of the street, used everywhere but places like work or school. According to André, there wasn’t even a formal writing system for the language until 1979.

“So for that reason, a lot of Haitians my generation and maybe one generation after me, didn’t know how to write the language,” said André. “I had to go I had to go to the linguistics school in Haiti to learn the proper way to write Haitian Creole.”

Because of this, Creole has a history of being handed down orally, meaning it has many variations.

“There’s so much regionalism and so many differences across the board just because of the lack of formalization across the nation, which is a beautiful thing and at the same time, it makes it a little bit more challenging to teach,” said Toussaint.

Although Creole is gaining ground in the linguistics world today, the residual effects of its past remain.

“It was always left out,” said Toussaint. “There’s so much shame at times you know, parents not teaching their kids Creole because they want them to speak perfect English.”

Social injustice adds another layer of difficulty.

“There’s a lot of anti-blackness and just a lack of language justice,” Toussaint said. “I saw a comment on Duolingo on the announcement of publishing this course, someone said basically, ‘how dare Duolingo post this slave language before whatever other language.’”

However, Toussaint and André’s hard work has paid off, educating people on the language and connecting those of Haitian descent to their language and culture.

Their hard work continues even after the course has been published. André hopes to find other avenues to spread Creole, such as developing a Creole-English dictionary and children’s books.

Toussaint is keeping up with feedback on Duolingo and on Twitter, helping people with their questions about the language and even resolving disagreements they have about the pronunciation or grammar of the language.

“I truly appreciate the care that André provided me when I was a student,” said Toussaint. “But also I’m grateful to provide care in the context of a language that was never cared for.”

Elise Gregg is a junior majoring in journalism with a minor in criminal justice. Upon graduation, she would like to pursue a career covering international crime, particularly human rights violations and religious oppression around the world.