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This is the Irish course that has 200,000 people taking part

Duolingo launched the beta version of its Irish course during the summer, and its success has been down to five volunteers.

IF YOU TOLD someone that an Irish course would see almost 200,000 signing up, and it would still be in the beta stages, few would have believed you.

Yet that’s exactly what happened when Duolingo, one of the most popular language apps globally with 50 million users, decided to put together an Irish course under its incubator programme, where volunteers put together their own course with help from the main team.

The course was announced back in March with the beta arriving in August and it was not until mid-November that the course quietly arrived on the app. It also had the honour, alongside Dutch, to be one of the first language courses created this way on the service so it was a learning process for both sides.

That success has been down to five people who created (and are currently tweaking) the course. Coming from a diverse background, the team consisted of Alex Burke, Gabriel Beecham, Oisín Ó Doinn, Dylan Mac Lochlainn, and Laura Doherty, each one coming from different backgrounds.

Beecham, a Dublin native, was one of the first two people to start working on the course – the other was Alex Burke, a secondary school student from Cork.

During the daytime, he is a doctor but his interest and passion for languages (he speaks Latin, French, Esperanto, and learnt German) means he engages in similar projects like localising the interface for the Irish versions of Wikipedia and Facebook.

Having that interest in languages meant he heard about Duolingo early on and eventually its search for Irish speakers.

“I was using it to learn German… [when] it announced it was coming out with the incubator programme,” explained Beecham. “I really saw the potential for it in Irish. I’ve been involved in other translation projects… so I like the process of that specialised translation and localisation and internationalisation and it’s really powerful for Irish.”

While that experience certainly helped with organising the course, the nature of the service threw up its own challenges. One problem was the use of audio exercises, which created its fair share of problems according to Beecham.

Up until then, they [Duolingo] were able to use speech synthesis software, but there isn’t that many options available for Irish so Duolingo arranged for a speaker to read out the exercise.
That creates its own issues like it’s a particular dialect that’s being used or accent… Irish does have its own complexity as it has three main dialects so we decided to go with the standard Irish as the main version of the language that we teach.
But we’re trying to build the course so that it accepts answers in any of the main dialects. It’s kinda difficult to tread that balance but it hasn’t been too bad.

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Another issue that had to be addressed was the context of certain words. That was something that brought up its fair share of complications, according to Dylan Mac Lochlainn, another member who isisased in London.

Originally from Tyrone, he is currently in his final year of medicine in UCL and wasn’t involved in the course until mid-way through. Part of Duolingo’s appeal is that it boils everything down to its most basic level. That’s great for the user, but since certain words can have multiple meanings, it can be difficult to avoid some degree of confusion.

“The course wants you to describe each and every word as having a specific meaning so when people are playing a game, they can hover over and see what it means… it starts to get very complicated as you keep adding more and more, people start asking ‘which one should I use here?’ The problem is you see the words and you see all these different forms which you might use in different places.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the uptake being high. Since the beta launched, more than 200,000 people have signed up to the service. The majority are based in the US (64%) while 9% are in Ireland. Other popular countries include England (9%), Canada (6.5%) and Australia (3%).

While the course is accessible to everyone, its role isn’t to create the next generation of native Irish language speakers.

Many will start off but the chances of those who complete the course wanting to take things a step further is pretty small. Mac Lochlainn says that if 1% of those taking the course made the jump, it would be pretty good, but he’s realistic about the course’s role in the greater scheme of things.

The course is an introductory course, it’s not a way to create fluent Irish speakers, it’s not a way to address the problems in the Gaeltacht in keeping Irish alive as a community language, that’s beyond our remit… All we’re trying to do is people who otherwise wouldn’t have been using the language [get the opportunity to learn it].

That opportunity comes from a basic desire to want to learn the language, and a love of Irish and languages is the obvious reason for the team’s contribution, but Mac Lochlainn has a more philosophical viewpoint for why they gave up their free time to help.

We have this great culture of amateurism… where people are giving up their time just out of passion and love for it. Even though we’re not professional, the Irish love an amateur and that’s probably the essence of it for me. Ireland is generally full of people giving up their free time in this great spirit of amateurism… [and] these are the sort of things that are really intrinsic and in the national character.

So what’s stopping it from taking off the beta tag and becoming an official launch? The answer to that is the number of reports it receives. For any course on Duolingo to be completed, the number of reports must be under 3 for every 100 users. Once it’s below this threshold and stays under for a certain period of time, the tag is taken off. It’s getting there – the latest figure was 1.96 reports for every 100 users – but it needs to maintain that standard before it becomes official.

Ultimately, it’s about people enjoying learning the language, whether they’re new or refreshing their memory. Probably one of the best things to happen is the number of Irish speakers who are joining the forums and helping out as Beecham mentions.

“We’re enjoying making the course and people are obviously enjoying using it and people who speak Irish perfectly themselves have come along to the forum and helping other people to learn Irish so there’s a nice community on the forum growing.”

If you want to get started, Duolingo is available on iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Read: Want to use Gmail as Gaeilge? Now you can! >

Read: 5 apps worth downloading this week >

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