A childhood passion for linguistics leads Liberal Arts alumna to Duolingo

Michaela Harpster
December 02, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Have you ever heard people speaking a different language and wondered how different languages work? It almost seems like a secret code for those who don’t speak the language. This is exactly how Liberal Arts alumna Cindy Blanco said she felt as a child listening to her dad’s Spanish-speaking side of the family. This fascination with languages from an early age is what got her interested in linguistics.

Blanco now works as a senior learning scientist at Duolingo, an online language-learning tool. Users can learn 38 languages from the site —  including Klingon for the "Star Trek" fans.

As a senior learning scientist, Blanco has a multitude of responsibilities. Part of her work is collaborating with other roles and departments to create new features and ways of teaching languages through technology. This can be language-specific but more often is about how to teach any language, she said.

Outreach and science communication are other important duties that Blanco has at Duolingo. She writes blog posts and meets with journalists to talk about language, language learning and language teaching.

“I want to translate language and linguistic research in ways that make them interesting and accessible to people from all walks of life,” Blanco said.

Blanco said she attributes the skills she gained from her liberal arts education to her success at Duolingo. Among these skills are clear and persuasive writing, building arguments from all kinds of data, and researching new areas.

“No job will exactly match what you study — you'll always have to learn more, about new topics and different perspectives, and this is exactly what liberal arts students are trained to do,” she said. “My in-depth content knowledge about language and linguistics is of course essential in my work at Duolingo, but what makes me a valuable collaborator is that I can share that knowledge and those perspectives in productive ways with people from any discipline.”

Blanco graduated with a master of arts degree in Spanish with a linguistics option from Penn State in 2008. From there, she got her doctoral degree in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. She completed her postdoctoral research in cognitive psychology at Northwestern University until 2018.

“Intense” is the word that Blanco would use to describe her time at Penn State. “I was a very young graduate student when I started. I wasn't a particularly mature thinker. I knew nothing about research or experiments, and I was blown away by the brilliance of my professors and peers. It was amazing, but it was also frightening,” she said.

Her academic family in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese have continued to support her through both her successes and her setbacks, she said. “Penn State has shaped me more profoundly than any other institution, and I use lessons from those years and classes every single day.”

One memory that sticks with Blanco from her time at Penn State was when she was working with several other students on fellowship applications with a swiftly approaching deadline. Blanco described the applications as tedious, intimidating and “totally unlike anything any of us had written before.” She explained that, while at many other institutions students were on their own for these proposals, Penn State turned it into a team endeavor. Students worked together and peer reviewed each other's work, and faculty advisers spent hours helping them brainstorm, edit — even ordering them dinner one night — until they submitted their proposals.

“Even when facing daunting decisions and projects, I was surrounded by people committed to my success who were excited to teach, help and guide me," said Blanco. "There's no better snapshot of my time at Penn State!”

Anyone interested in Blanco’s Duolingo blog can check it out here. Visit her personal website to learn more about her education and career.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 02, 2020