Akron Irish: Do the Duo

Akron Irish: Do the Duo
By Lisa O’Rourke

Thomas Wolfe wrote, “All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travelers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken.” It is the time of year for returning, the attention-scattering, temptation-laden summer has passed.

So, back to the books, to home, to education, to all things which speak to a more sober, sensible turn of mind. Yes, it is time to dust off the neglected or abandoned hobbies.

Learning a language is great hobby to resume or begin. What better one than Irish? Well, as a wise woman once said to me, the first seven years are the worst. 

I will leave that to you to think over. The Irish language gets loads of play in this paper, which is a good thing, and falls right in line with history.

Irish was a spoken language that at the end of the 1800s, had been shamed as the Famine language, and driven almost underground to languish with those soggy potatoes. It was the Irish American papers that really kept Irish alive and transitioned it to a written language. And now, between computers and the written word, the language may have more users than ever.


So, this is a quantitative statement, and not a qualitative statement. My dirty secret, at least one of them, is that I use Duolingo for my Irish practice.

For anyone who is not acquainted with the app, it is available where apps are available. It is called a language learning app. I think it is more of a language learning support. Duolingo is recognizable by their mascot, a whimsical neon-green owl. The company launched in 2011 and is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.

The most amazing thing is that it is free. There are some perks if you pay, but essentially, you can learn the language of your choice for free. Currently there are forty million users worldwide. A banner which is visible sometimes at login, states that there are more Irish learners on Duolingo than there are active speakers, four million presently. Those users have signed up and signed in but are not necessarily daily users.  

In March, Duolingo stopped using volunteers and is now using professional linguists exclusively to create their lessons. That move could be interpreted as a response to the most frequent criticism aimed at the little green owl, the lack of accuracy.

Irish is particularly difficult for several reasons. One reason is that there are so many ways to express something, and the devil lives in the nuance. To paraphrase the writer Flann O’Brien, the accomplished Gaeilgeoir (a fluent Irish speaker) prides himself on never using the same word twice.

When using Duolingo in a lesson, you need to adhere to what the lesson is about. They cannot respond on an app to a students’ linguistic creativity; you have to spit it back at them the way that you got it.

Another problem area is the existence of dialect variations. This makes Irish really infuriating at times. You have to let go and know that you, as a learner especially, will never grasp the complete knowledge of all the ins and outs of variation in the regional ways of expression. It is crazy that a country the size of Indiana can be so inconsistent in their speech, but it has more to do with the clannishness of the place than the size.

Another element contributing to the inconsistency is that Irish was primarily an oral language for so long. Anyone on the street speaks much less formally and with more color, or as the Irish would say, blas, than in their in writing.

Finally, the last problem with Duolingo is probably the biggest one, the lack of pronunciation. The lessons do not have many words that are read aloud in the lesson and there is no feature for the learner to check their own pronunciation, in what is called speech to text. French in Duolingo, for example, has some lessons that are purely auditory and monitors the learner’s attempts at word repetition.

Canadian Gaeltacht
So, I found myself this last August in an online course run by the Canadian Gaeltacht, admitting sheepishly that I use Duolingo. Not only do I use it, but I like it. So, after all the negatives listed, what keeps me coming back? And I do mean coming back. I have used Duolingo for about seven years.
Well, for one thing, it is time. The lessons are short and focused. They contain the varied repetition that all language lessons feature. The lessons are short, about fifteen sentences, therefore, you actually can use it every day. That is key to me.

I tried Rosetta Stone, which is great for some people. For me, sitting down for a half hour a day is something that I can only do one day or so a week. Even with the proverbial skin in the game that a hundred-dollar payment provides, I couldn’t find the time and I resented the long, repetitive lessons and forced progression that their program demands.

Not so with Duo. You are free to flit around on topics as you choose to some extent. You work through levels on a given topic, let’s say weather, until you progress to Level Five and you are done with it.

Duolingo has an embedded game structure too. If you make too many mistakes, you have to do a practice lesson, which means no points for you that day. The app values a learning streak and allows you to accumulate points based on that streak. So there are incentives, small, but there. You can move up in leagues with your practice. The paid membership offers unlimited lessons with no error faults.

We are still running our Akron Hibernian Irish class. The pandemic has moved us online and now we are an Akron, Louisville, Green, Kentucky and Virginia class.

Over the years, we have had several people begin the language class with us, only to quit in a few weeks. Some of them were looking for a cool tattoo phrase. Some of them wanted a secret elf language.

Superficial study will only lead to limited satisfaction with any language, and Irish particularly. You are as well off to content yourself with a phrase sheet as to start, without commitment. It is too complex to understand easily. That complexity also gives the language is richness. There must be something in that richness, because I have met some wonderful people through Irish.

October is where fall becomes official. In old Celtic culture, it is also a time of death and rebirth, Halloween and All Saints. It is a perfect time to talk again about that Lazarus of a language, Irish. Go on and do the Duo. What do you have to lose? Try a new old language. It is the perfect time to get a taste of something besides pumpkin spice.

*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected].

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