Irish being the fastest growing language on Duolingo is a positive step

Is Irish having a renaissance? Evan Carron-Kee discusses potential reasons for the rise in popularity of learning the language

Nearly every country saw a spike in Duolingo sign-ups after Covid-19 restrictions became widespread in March. In most of the English-speaking world, learners focused on Spanish and French. However, Ireland was the exception: 43% of new sign-ups in March and April were for Irish, almost doubling the proportion of Irish learners on Duolingo. This trend highlights some of the flaws of how Irish is currently taught and promoted, but it also points to a new direction for both Irish language education and activism.

The first question we must ask is: why didn’t we see a similar rise in new learners studying Spanish and French, as in other countries? While we don’t have access to the data necessary to provide a definitive answer, there are two factors which likely contributed to this trend: problems with the Irish language education system, and a more general desire to engage with Irish among the population, which the pandemic facilitated.

“About 45% of new sign-ups to Duolingo in March cited ‘school’ as their motivation for learning a new language.”

It is helpful to divide the new Duolingo learners into two groups: those who joined to aid their schoolwork, and those who joined for other reasons. About 45% of new sign-ups to Duolingo in March cited ‘school’ as their motivation for learning a new language.  As schools closed, students turned to online resources to help them learn. To an extent this explains why trends in Ireland were so different to the rest of the Anglosphere. Unlike most English-speaking countries, Spanish and French are not the only languages taught in our schools. However, it is likely that the state of Irish language education has also contributed to the disproportionate rise in Irish learners on Duolingo. Although it is no surprise to anyone that Irish is taught very poorly, it is still outrageous that many students felt the need to turn to Duolingo during the lockdown to learn Irish, but not to learn Spanish or French.

Problems which have plagued Irish language education for decades have yet to be tackled. Partial immersion in Irish at primary level is a noble goal, but we have yet to deal with the ‘self-confessed lack of confidence and competence of teachers’ in the language, according to a 2016 report by a European consultancy firm. With regards to second-level education, it is cliché to argue that we should move away from teaching poetry and prose, and towards conversational Irish, but the curriculum remains unchanged. We didn’t see a spike in sales of “An Triail”, a text commonly set for the Leaving Certificate, over the lockdown. Instead, students chose Duolingo, an app which teaches simple, conversational Irish in an interactive way. This is yet another indictment of the Irish education system; many students want to learn Irish but find that the education system does more harm than good.

The other half of sign-ups to Duolingo have implications for how Irish should be promoted outside of the education system. The key insight here is that there are many people who hadn’t engaged with Irish before the lockdown, but who chose to do so after restrictions had been put in place. These are people who would like to take up Irish as a hobby, but feel that normally they don’t have the time or motivation to do so. This points to a future for Irish as a kind of ‘national hobby’. There is obviously a latent desire to learn the language within the population. How can we encourage people to begin learning the language as a pastime?

Let’s consider an analogy from abroad: South Korean hiking culture. South Koreans are obsessed with hiking. In 2018, they spent more on mountain climbing gear than they did on cosmetics or cinema tickets. While some take the activity seriously, most Koreans see it as a fun pastime. Nearly two-thirds hike once a year and a third of the population go hiking once a month. There are two reasons for this popularity. First, mountains are intertwined with notions of national identity for Koreans. The national origin myth is that the Korean people are descended from the mountain god, and mountains are mentioned in the national anthem. Second, hiking is accessible in Korea. South Korea’s 22 national parks are well maintained and nearly all are mountainous. Also, most paths are safe and easy to climb, so people of all abilities can take part.

“If we want Irish to become a ‘national hobby’, we need to make it more accessible.”

The parallels with Ireland are obvious. Irish is already part of our national identity, and the trend in Duolingo sign-ups shows that people want to engage with it. If we want Irish to become a ‘national hobby’, we need to make it more accessible. That means a focus on ‘weak engagement’ with the language. Support for the Gaeltacht, Irish-medium degrees, and Irish-language university accommodation are excellent policies for creating talented Irish speakers and writers, but they don’t encourage people to take up Irish in their spare time.

Universities should focus on both on improving students’ fluency in the language, and normalising its use on campus. They can start by raising awareness of Irish electives and free classes and by creating Irish-only areas, for example. When it comes to promoting social engagement through the language, the work done by Cumainn Ghaelacha across the country cannot be overstated. Here in Trinity, Cumann organises an annual week-long Irish festival, Éigse na Tríonóide, as well as ciorcal comhrá and other social events throughout the year. Universities should seek to support their Cumann as much as possible; competency in the language is important, but without a vibrant social scene, Irish will struggle to attract new learners. 

There is a role for the State too: as new learners progress on apps like Duolingo they will need to broaden their experiences with the language. In response, government support for ciorcal comhrá and Irish language hours in cafés should be expanded. Perhaps secondary school teachers of Irish could be paid to take on a part-time community role in promoting Irish, organising evening classes and events as Gaeilge. Awareness of An Fáinne, a distinctive gold or silver badge worn to show one’s willingness to speak Irish, should be promoted. If An Fáinne were more prominent in daily life, it could contribute enormously to the normalisation of speaking Irish. 

The rise in Irish learners on Duolingo is exceptionally positive news, and it shows that people want to learn Irish. However, an increase in Duolingo sign-ups alone can’t save a language. It is our responsibility to respond to this news with action, and turn a cause for optimism into actual progress.