This year’s headline speaker at Duocon was none other than Nobel Prize winner and education activist Malala Yousafzai. In a conversation with Luis von Ahn, Duolingo co-founder and CEO, Malala shared more about her passion for accessible, safe education, the things bringing her joy these days, and of course, her relationship to language!

Her favorite teacher taught English (and so much more!)

Malala fondly remembers her primary school English teacher Miss Wilford. But she didn’t only teach English—Malala says that she learned “manners, how to be kind to people, and how to be a better person,” all from Miss Wilford!

Of course, Malala’s passion for education naturally means she’s connected with many educators over the years, and all of them influenced Malala beyond the subjects they taught.

Cartoon avatar of Malala next to a quote that reads: "If you ever doubt the importance of education, go ask a girl."

Malala speaks (or understands) 4 different languages.

Malala grew up learning Pashto, her mother tongue, and also learned Urdu, which is the national language of Pakistan. From a young age she also started learning English, which came in handy when she moved to the U.K. in 2013. And finally, Malala can comfortably understand a bit of Arabic from studying the Quran. (She also used Duolingo to advance her Arabic skills!)

But the language she thinks in differs based on context!

For people who are proficient in multiple languages, their brains have to learn to switch easily between languages depending on the situation. For Malala, she mostly counts in Pashto and that tends to be the language running through her head. Since it was her first language growing up, she feels Pashto allows her to speak with “no filter” and have an honest, genuine conversation.

But when it comes to her advocacy work, she tends to think more often in English—likely because that’s the language she communicates in more often when discussing her foundation and activism.

The language in her head might also differ based on how she learned it. For example, when Malala was learning English, she learned it from Urdu, not Pashto. So she felt like she was doing two translations–from Pashto to Urdu, and then from Urdu to English!

She started learning Swahili during the pandemic.

Like many people during the early days of COVID-19, Malala decided to learn a language in her free time. While many learners chose to brush up Spanish or French, Malala chose Swahili… which she started on Duolingo!

She has a streak of over 200 days!

At the time of her interview with Luis von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo, Malala had maintained a 220-day streak on Duolingo!

We were honored to talk to Malala about the important work she’s doing to ensure girls everywhere have access to a safe, quality education. To hear more from Malala about everything from her activism to her favorite TV shows, watch her Duocon interview with Duolingo founder and CEO, Luis von Ahn!