January 13, 2006 was a scorching day in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was peak summer, and most of the city was on vacation. But not reporters Rodolfo Palacios and María Ripetta, who were glued to the TV, watching breaking news about an armed robbery taking place at a local bank.
Police seemed to have everything under control… but little did they know, the thieves were about to vanish into thin air, along with $20 million in loot.
So begins the first episode of Season 9 of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, titled “El gran robo argentino” (“The Great Argentine Heist”) — the world’s first-ever true crime series designed specifically for language learners, which concludes this week. If you think true crime and language learning make an odd pairing, well, think again. Turns out the two go together like Bonnie and Clyde.
Over the last few years, Duolingo’s Podcast Team has worked hard to streamline our production process and produce reliable — and reliably excellent — episodes that expose intermediate learners to immersive listening experiences and real, native speakers. In 2019, we hit our stride on the Spanish Podcast, producing regular, 8-episode seasons that featured a different storyteller each episode, along with English narration provided by our host and executive producer, Martina Castro.
So this year, we decided to pose ourselves a new challenge. What would it be like to produce a serialized season? One story told in six parts, week after week?
Our theory was this: if you tell a well-crafted, thrilling story – one where each episode ends in a cliffhanger – you’ll hook listeners. And if you hook listeners, they’ll be compelled to tune in week after week to find out what happens next. (Will the thieves be caught? Will the loot be discovered?) Engaging content means more exposure to language, and more exposure to language means improved listening comprehension. It seemed like a win-win scenario for our learners.
There were many kinds of stories we could have chosen to pursue, but going after an enthralling true crime narrative felt like a no-brainer. It’s one of the most popular podcast genres out there, and it lends itself to bingeable, serialized storytelling in a way few other genres can match.
This spring, just as Covid-19 was forcing us to take all Duolingo podcast productions remote, our partners at Adonde Media pitched an episode about a Mexican journalist who investigates a series of unsolved murders. Is this our true crime series? we asked ourselves. But pretty quickly, our senior country marketing manager in Mexico, Rebeca Ricoy Paramo, helped us see that it was not. For one thing, this was a traumatic event that had spawned years of political upheaval. The nexus of violence and politics was just too complex for our intermediate language level. On top of that, the story simply didn’t feel like the right fit for Duolingo.
So we went back to the drawing board. That’s when our partners at Adonde came to us with a story we couldn’t refuse: a notorious 2006 bank heist in Argentina that had once captivated the entire country, turning hardened thieves into folk heroes, and seasoned police officers into bumbling caricatures. It was also rumored to be the crime that inspired the hit Netflix show, Money Heist.
We knew we’d found our story.
The team got to work right away. Our producers at Adonde began interviewing storytellers and drafting scripts, while internally we formed a special team of creatives and language experts to help craft the clearest, most compelling version of this story for language learners. Meanwhile, there were a lot of questions to answer. Would any of the infamous thieves grant us an interview? Could we produce the show safely, and on time, during a global pandemic? And how could we help prepare listeners for the distinct Argentine accent, which Duolingo Spanish learners don’t encounter inside the app?
As we dove further into production, there were other challenges that arose.
Some people involved in the heist refused to talk to us. Others legally couldn’t: they had contracts pending with other production companies champing at the bit to tell this story. At one point, one of our key protagonists threatened to drop out. Another wished to keep his identity anonymous, so we decided to refer to him in the series as “Officer M.”, and an actor was hired to read his lines.
But despite the headaches and complications, our producers pulled it off. On October 22, we published the first episode of “El gran robo argentino” — and broke our own personal record for the most downloads of any Duolingo podcast episode ever! We also received coverage in The Verge, Marketplace, and Vulture. And thanks to our talented head of art, Greg Hartman, the miniseries has been stamped with its very own key art that’s been a hit on social media: Detective Duo, out to solve the case of the Río Bank heist.
So far, the audience response has exceeded our expectations, giving us strong reason to believe that serialized storytelling can be a valuable language learning tool.
The final episode of “El gran robo argentino” drops today, so don't miss it! (And be sure to listen to the end, where we have an exciting announcement about an upcoming monolingual version of this story.) You can find the entire miniseries on the Duolingo Spanish Podcast website, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
This may be the first time Duolingo has decided to produce a serialized season of the podcast… but rest assured, it won’t be the last.