Táim ag foghlaim Gaeilge le Duolingo

Last week I hit two milestones on Duolingo: I reached a 365-day streak, and I completed the Irish skill tree (finished all of the lessons for the language, for those who are not familiar with the app). I started doing a few Duolingo lessons a day at the start of lockdown when I first arrived back in the US from Southeast Asia and now, a year and change later and still in lockdown (although now in Ireland), I’ve managed to keep the streak going and also complete every lesson on the skill tree.

Despite being one of the official languages of Ireland, a history of oppression in which the use of Irish was forbidden by the English and Irish words and particularly place names were haphazardly Anglicised (in college I read Brian Friel’s Translations for a course and have been fascinated by this ever since) means that bilingual speakers are a minority. It is estimated that only 40-80k people in Ireland are fully fluent in the language, and in the 2016 census only 6.3% of respondents said they speak Irish weekly (with only 1.7% reporting speaking it daily).

While there are a few jobs that require a level of proficiency in Irish, for the most part you could go your whole life without ever needing a word, especially as an immigrant.

So why am I, an American who could definitely get away with never learning a cupla focal (couple of words) as Gaeilge (in Irish), on day 374 of this Irish-language journey? Well, an obvious reason is boredom, to which I’m sure many can relate. I needed something to do while sitting around at home in lockdown.

I was also interested in learning/learning about a language that is not a Germanic language like English (obviously my native language) or German (which I’ve learned the very basics of via Duolingo previously), or a Romance language like Spanish (which I speak proficiently). I’ve always been fascinated by languages and linguistics—I wrote my master’s thesis on the political role of the Basque language in the publishing industry during the Franco dictatorship—and the idea of learning a language so different than the ones I am familiar with appealed to me.

There are also cultural reasons. Although there is no “need” to know Irish to live in Ireland, and indeed a majority of Irish people don’t despite having it as a class all through school, I think it would be a shame to see the language die out due to there not being enough speakers to maintain its presence. Language preservation is important, and while it’s much more difficult to learn a language as an adult than as a child, it’s still possible, and I’m willing to put the work in.

Speaking of children, when Steve and I have kids in the future we plan to send them to the gaelscoil (Irish-speaking school) so they can become Gaeilgeoirí (Irish speakers) at an early age, and I do not want my kids to be able to talk about me in a language I don’t speak. So that’s a personal motivation for learning the language over the next few years.

Now the question is, after a year on Duolingo, do I feel like I’ve seen torthaí (results)? Well, I think I’ve made progress. Duolingo is great for learning vocabulary, and most of the topics it covers are ones you would actually envision yourself speaking about in real life, such as food, politics, sport, and the weather.

Although there are some odd sentences you’re asked to translate (“The woman is in the fridge” makes frequent appearances”) to ensure you understand the words and aren’t just making logical guesses, most of the sentences and verbs are applicable to real life conversation.

That makes it appealing to continue on as you feel like you are actually learning things you’ll be able to use in the future. When I watch TG4 (the Irish-language channel that is often on TV here as it is the broadcaster for GAA and some other cultural programmes), I already find myself picking up on and recognising vocabulary.

I’ve also come to understand some uniquely Irish sentence phrases in English, such as saying that someone is “after doing something” rather than that someone “has just done something” or that someone “do be something” rather than “is something,” as these hiberno-English constructions come from the Irish translations.

Where I feel that Duolingo is lacking, especially on the app and especially in the Irish course, is in theory. Because the Irish language is different from English, Spanish, or other widely-spoken languages, some of the grammar and pronunciation rules are different and not intuitive, and while you can figure them out to an extent from the examples given, it’s hard to transfer those intuitions to unfamiliar words and phrases because you aren’t told the linguistic theory behind them. Irish also has several dialects, which the course does not delve into at all.

The Irish course is also less developed than the courses for some of the more popular language. Steve is using it to learn Spanish right now and he has lessons where he has to speak into the microphone or can listen to stories and answer questions about them, whereas the Irish course are more basic—translating a sentence from English to Irish or vice versa, choosing matching vocabulary, etc.

My final complaint about Duolingo’s Irish course is actually a complaint about my own laziness: Duolingo is too kind when marking answers as correct if they do not utilise the fada. The fada is the diacritical accent mark that appears over some vowels in Irish to change the meaning and pronunciation of a word. If you uses no fadas at all, Duolingo still interprets your answer as correct. Therefore, despite having completed the entire skill tree, I have very little idea which words have fadas and when to use them.

Duolingo is never going to be enough to bring you to fluency in a language, and I know that I’ll need a lot of proper class time and possibly an immersive trip to a gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) to really learn the language. I had planned on taking an evening course at the local community college, but of course that was not possible this year. Still, although Duolingo gave me only a taste of Irish over the past year, I’m looking forward to learning more.

Go raibh mile maith agat (thanks a million) for reading!

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