Given all the praise and hype that surrounds Duolingo, I wanted to articulate why, in my opinion, it is at best, a supplement, and what to use in its place if you truly wish to learn Irish.

I’ll begin by focusing on the issues with Duolingo in general, followed by those particular to the Irish course itself later on.

I am not going to focus on Duolingo’s highly inflated numbers; while they are better than they were previously, they are still incredibly misleading, as they count anyone who has done a lesson at any time in the past year. Let’s just say, there are not nearly as many people learning Irish as is claimed.


Why not Duolingo — General

There are several reasons why I will never recommend Duolingo as anyone’s main language tool, or, really, as anything but a supplement that can (but not necessarily will) help you learn and solidify vocab/grammar knowledge. Why is that? Well, it’s missing a few key things.

First, it doesn’t give you any well-rounded skills. You’re very rarely, if at all, forced to translate from the learning language to the target language. This means you never get experience using the target language in written situations. Instead, you’re mostly just translating from the target language to your native language; and on the app, it’s even worse, as you just tap the words and don’t even have to actively recall them or their spelling.

Likewise, you never get any actual listening experience. Yes, you’ll hear the odd sentence and some courses have a robotic voice, but it’s just that — robotic. It doesn’t mimic native speech, and is really a poor imitation of native speech.

Worst, perhaps, Duolingo offers nothing in the way of speaking. Sure, some courses have a ‘say it’ section…but it has no feedback or anything; I’ve once even said “garble” and DL’s system marked it as correct; there’s also stories of it accepting background noise. Plus, I’m not even sure if this exists on the app, or even in the web-browser now.

What Duolingo does give you, you might argue, is reading. However, that’s not really true either. It doesn’t give you reading, where you read, understand and comprehend a passage. Instead, it gives you translation. It asks you to translate from your target language to your (I’m assuming) native language. It doesn’t ask you to read a passage or anything and understand and answer questions about it. It can barely be called reading.

Another thing it lacks is context, and it relies on deliberately nonsensical sentences. These sentences are absolutely nothing like what you’ll hear being spoken, in any language. And there are many things that rely on context in languages, and certain things are said differently depending on the context (Irish is a prime example of this), which Duolingo doesn’t give you at all.

A sixth issue with Duolingo is the lack of any real explanations. While this is mitigated some by the “Tips and Notes” on the web version, many more people use the app which lacks this section, and thus they go in with no explanation. This means you can’t even see the basic grammar explanations they give, or ask questions about it, and you’re left to intuit where you went wrong, something that can be extremely frustrating if you don’t pick up patterns quickly and something that could easily be fixed. This can be helped with repetition, but DL often just has you memorize when missing questions, as apart from understanding. And, given the most recent updates in the app to keep your attention and keep Duolingo profitable, the app is absolutely awful and you don’t even have to type the words, it just becomes a tapping game.

Overall this is enough to take you to perhaps a low A2 in the CEFR scale, though your skills will be highly unbalanced since there won’t be any authentic speaking, listening or writing practice. There’s no way it’ll get you to B1 as is often claimed. At best, these limits make it useful to pick up vocab and reinforce the grammatical structures you already know, but it should be used with another course and only the web version should be used, never the app.


Why not Duolingo — Irish

All the problems that exist with Duolingo itself are compounded by the problems that exist within the Irish course specifically.

First, there is the matter of audio. While the audio is now spoken by a native speaker, there are still a lot of sentences that don’t contain sound (and originally, the audio wasn’t even done by a native speaker). So you’re not getting repeated exposure to the sounds of the language, and oftentimes trying to substitute in your own pronunciation of the words, sometimes without ever hearing the word spoken before. This is a huge issue when learning a language with such a drastically different orthography and can easily lead to fossilization. I understand this isn’t necessarily Duolingo’s fault, as there was not acceptable TTS system, but it’s still a huge detriment when learning a language. This is compounded by the fact that most the Irish you’ll hear will have horrible pronunciation, as most people aren’t native speakers and substitute in English pronunciation. I’ll have another post about this later.

Second, comes the matter of just plain incorrect translations. There are many that lack the use of cuid (another post), such as this one. This is a common non-native mistake, and the fact that it shows up multiple times throughout the course is worrying for people trying to accurately learn the language (and doesn’t say much about the course contributors).

Finally comes the fact that sometimes there’s dialectal forms that are accepted/taught when they stand contrary to the standard form. One example is here where the Donegal form of the sentence is taught, despite it being incorrect in the other dialects and in the standard (which is what it of course purports to teach). This wouldn’t be an issue if the course was teaching Donegal Irish, but as it’s teaching the Standard, it becomes a huge issue, and also hurts users who are trying to intuit the rules, but then see that, which breaks them.

These aren’t the only ones, and there are other examples of either poor translation without context (such as saying that a passive sentence is active in the translation) or just outright grammatical mistakes (such as ag ceapadh é sin instead of á cheapadh sin seen here)

Note: To explain the usage of cuid: It is used with all non-quantifiable nouns (such as airgead, bainne, and gruaig) as well as certain in-alienable quantifiable nouns in the plural (such as leabhair, cúpáin, etc; but not, generally, cosa, súile, etc.) though it has expanded in at least one dialect to include all nouns in the plural. Learners often forget it because no such thing exists in English, so they never use it in Irish. It’s a shame that the Duolingo course falls along those lines as well.

So how do I go about learning Irish?

Thankfully, there are several ways out there to learn Irish, even if you don’t use Duolingo. These are both free and paid. First, I will say go read The Geeky Gaeilgeoir’s blog post on why to avoid Duolingo (Edit: Seems to have been deleted), though I will add my own thoughts as well (some of which might overlap).

  • Teach Yourself Irish — This is the original TY course for Irish, which focuses on the native dialect used in West Cork. While it is not in the public domain, the publisher and the authors have given free-use access, so you can use the PDF for free. It relies on the grammar-translation model, so is a bit dry but can still be very useful, especially if you wish to learn Irish as it’s actually spoken by native speakers in Munster. The link above directs you to the PDF with audio files that can be played directly from the PDF. Another great resource for Cork Irish is the Cork Irish blog. There is tons of information here for the Irish from the area, including stuff you might not find anywhere else, as well as a dictionary. It’s a treasure-trove of stuff.
  • Learning Irish – While this one isn’t free, it is to Connacht Irish what the original TY is to Munster Irish. It’s a very good, in-depth book of lessons for Connacht Irish, focusing specifically on that of Cois Fharraige which includes Spiddal and Inverin though it technically stretches much farther, despite those areas becoming English speaking suburbs of Galway City in recent decades. It uses the Grammar-Translation model as well, and sometimes it doesn’t explain where the answers come from. Thankfully you can just go to ILF (mentioned later) to ask about that.
  • For Donegal Irish, you have Barbara Hillers’s Buntús na Gaeilge. While this doesn’t teach 100% native Donegal Irish (having a few standardized things), it does mention the differences, and is the best place to start for learning Donegal (there are no other surviving dialects in Ulster) Irish. This course was originally made for the Irish classes at Harvard University (where a new version exists geared towards Connemara), though I wouldn’t be surprised if Hillers still uses it at Indiana University. Also be sure to note that Now You’re Talking, mentioned in the Geeky Gaeilgeoir’s blog, is very firmly Tír Chonaill Irish. The videos, along with audio exercises and the answers to the exercises, can be found on the Ultach website, under ‘archive’ and then ‘Now You’re Talking’. These are a great resource.
  • If you want more of a standard based, I’d recommend Progress in Irish (answers can be found here) and Buntús Cainte, which is also very good in standard usage, with audio from Connemara speakers. Another great set of books for standard Irish is the Gaeilge Gan Stró (beginner’s level; lower intermediate level) and a companion book that focuses on grammar, Gramadach Gan Stró. These last three are all written by Éamonn Ó Dónaill, who wrote the Now You’re Talking video series mentioned above.
  • Finally, Dublin City University is offering free Irish classes on Future Learn, that are of a much better quality than Duolingo, and cost exactly the same. A list of all the levels (101-108, 201-202) can be found here. These courses are great not only for learning the language, but to get a little insight into the culture of Ireland and the Gaeltachtaí.
  • Gramadach na Gaeilge – This website is by far the most extensive grammar for Irish to be found on the internet. In fact, I’d even argue it’s more extensive than 90% of grammar books written for learners. And it’s all online free. While it can be a bit technical, it’s an amazing source and not to be overlooked because of how technical it is. If you speak German, the German version is even more in-depth and contains more examples than the English one as well as lots of pages that haven’t been fully translated. Very useful resource all around to answer your questions, even if navigating can be a real pain. English was not the creator’s native language, so some things sound odd, and some examples have been left untranslated when German serves as a better illustration.

Eventually, you’re going to want to start practicing your skills, including listening. The Geeky Gaeilgeoir already gives two good places — Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4 (though avoid Hector and Manchán; they both have fairly bad pronunciation). However, those can both be a bit daunting. Instead, I suggest looking at Vifax. It takes short clips out of a weekly Nuacht TG4 clip and posts them online, with questions about them. It’s a perfect place to train your listening comprehension, using small chunks. It also contains the answers to the questions, as well as a transcript of the audio section. I personally recommend using the transcript at lower levels to help you, but to eventually transcribe on your own and compare it with the official transcript. The latter is the technique I used to raise my Irish listening score over 10% on the TEG. I’ve written a post about how best to use Vifax at various levels. Please read it!

I want to say I recommend against any radio station that isn’t Raidió na Gaeltachta. The number of non-natives on those stations is extremely high, and non-natives are generally notoriously bad for pronunciation (see the links below). It’s best to avoid them at the beginning stages of learning, or else you risk picking up and fossilizing English sounds that don’t belong in your Irish.

To really practice your pronunciation, I recommend Blas. It’s a website filled with resources to be practicing pronunciation, with resources geared both towards students and towards teachers.

Along with listening, you’ll want to be reading too. There are several publishers out, and several stores that sell Irish books. Some big ones are Litriocht, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, An Siopa Gaeilge and An Siopa Leabhar. This is only a smattering, and there are many more publishers that offer discounts on their works throughout the year, such as Leabhar Breac, which recently published the translation of Game of Thrones. It’s worth noting that Litriocht offers free shipping in Ireland for all orders over €50.

There’s also Scribd, which is roughly a “Netflix for books” and has some Irish language books in its catalogue. They can be found by the publisher: Clo Iar-Chonnacht. Sadly, there used to be several other Irish language publishers, but their ebook distributor changed and they’re now no longer available. Hopefully they’ll come back one day, in which case I’ll update this post.

You’ll likely also be wanting recommendations on what to read. Personally, I suggest avoiding translations at first, as, contrary to other languages, translations aren’t always done by those who have Irish as a native language. But, then again, neither are the books written originally in Irish. So, when it comes down to it, I still recommend reading books originally published in Irish, just to draw attention and, hopefully, spark more people publishing in Irish as opposed to translation (which seems to get all the attention). After all, a living language needs its own literary tradition and can’t survive on translations.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill series, by Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin. While Tadhg isn’t a native speaker, he has spent the majority of his life teaching the language and now lives in Spiddal (and is married, I believe, to a native speaker; I have also been told that his Irish is better than that of half of Spiddal by a native speaker from further west). I had the chance to meet him a few years ago, and his Irish is absolutely wonderful. This series is great for beginners, and also contains audio of him reading, so you can practice your listening ability while you practice your reading ability. It’s fantastic.

While I have not read it, since I was already reading other stuff when I got it, there is also a fantasy series that starts with Claire Dagger’s An Phluais Ama, and has a sequel.

I firmly recommend An Litir by Liam Mac Cóill; it’s a great start to a historical fiction series, and can be as an ebook. It might be difficult at first, but your reading will have greatly progressed by the end of it. The third, and final, book in the series was released in 2020.

I recommend against Harry Potter, even if you wish to read translations. While in English, and most other languages, HP is a children’s novel, in Irish it uses fairly advanced syntax, and, according to one knowledgeable person, it even uses constructions out of Classical Irish that haven’t been used in native speech for a long while.

While we’re on the topic of reading, I would also like to recommend the Irish Learners’ Book Club on Facebook. It’s a group that takes easy-to-read ebooks and reads them together, giving each person who wants to a section to translate. Then knowledgeable people will come and correct the translations, answer any questions, and explain unusual features. It’s a great place for beginners learning to read, though I recommend that everyone read everything, instead of just relying on the translations until you get to your part. i you wish to join this group, please make sure to read the questions the admin has posted. There’s a similar Yahoo! group named Úrscéalta (Shut down by Yahoo!) that does the same thing for more advanced novels. Both could be great to people learning.

You might also want practice speaking. There’s a Facebook group for that as well, called GaelSkype. The problem is that the number of learners to fluent speakers if very, very high. And most learners are beginners, from what I’ve seen. I’m also not aware of any native speakers, so be warned. You can also try Comhrá le Chéile. They regularly run conversation classes aimed at all levels, and both of them have the most amazing Tír Chonaill Irish. While neither of them are natives, they both have very good Irish, C1+ on the TEG, and have done a Masters in Irish via the Fulbright Grant at NUIG. They’re both situated in MA in America, so if you’re in the area, odds are you can meet them in real life for conversation and such as well! One of them is a trained teacher as well, which also helps in sessions with him.

Other Odd Links

So, now that I’ve discussed how best to go about learning/improving your skills, I’m going to just throw in some other odd links to useful sites.

  • Irish Language Forum – This is a great group of people with a very high quality of Irish. There’s a native speaker from the South Connemara dialect region, as well as several highly fluent speakers who write and speak in Munster Irish, as well as one who uses strong Donegal Irish. Great place to get any questions you’re having answered.
  • Réimnigh – This is an online Irish language verb conjugator, that conjugates for the dialects as well, so you can see natively used forms and compare them to each other and the standard. It contains all of the irregular verbs, as well as some other verbs that differ between dialects. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated in quite some time.
  • Discord – There’s a very good Discord group I know of, dedicated to all the living Celtic Languages (and Old Irish). They’ve got native speakers of Irish from Kerry and Mayo there, as well as a native Scottish Gaelic speaker. People are great and are always eager to help learners learn, especially dialects. They’re also always ready to nerd out about dialectal differences, minor grammar points and linguistics in general. Here’s the link: Celtic Languages. There’s also another one which is solely in Irish with only one channel dedicated to English and one to other languages. There are lots of knowledgeable members there as well: Craic le Gaeilge.
  • Let’s Learn Irish also offers classes aimed at A1, A2, B1 levels of Irish. The teachers are top quality, and are based out of Washington D.C.
  • There is a Pop-Up Gaeltacht done by the group in San Diego on Zoom as well. Facebook link. They’re looking at continuing on after the quarantine as well.
  • There is a great Facebook group for people who are interested in Ulster Irish called Gaeilge Uladh – Ulster Irish. Really knowledgeable people about the dialect as it’s spoken in Donegal.
  • I’m also sure there’s other Facebook groups dedicated to learning the language, but I’m always wary of checking those out. The amount of bad Irish on the internet far outweighs the amount of good or native Irish. I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong for using dialectal plurals, while at the same time they just translated all sounds to English, even those that don’t exist in English. Or they used English syntax and such.
  • Also, just for your reading interested, I’d like to share a few links about the differences between native Irish and that of non-native learners, whether they go the Gaelscoils or the ordinary schools. This is to stress how different the two are, and to explain that not everything you see can be accepted as ‘good’ Irish because of that (though it certainly can be better than nothing!). Link 1, Link 2, Link 3 (several studies mentioned here)

Anyway, ádh mór orthaí and I hope your Irish learning goes great! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask, and I’ll answer as best I can.


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