Irish language gets boost from Duolingo mobile app

Users sign up to learn Irish as language learning platform release mobile app

Successive governments have tried and failed to encourage more people to speak Irish but a free mobile app may be about to make all the difference.

Duolingo, which was named by Apple as its App of the Year for 2013 and has also garnered a number of other top tech titles, has this week officially launched an Irish language course through its app, which it says is already being used by some 143,000 people. The 2011 census found that some 1.77 million people in the Republic said they could speak Irish, although just 1.8 per cent said they spoke it daily outside the education system.

The Duolingo course, which was previously available in beta mode for desktop users only, initially went live in late August when more than 6,000 people signed up to undertake it.

According to Duolingo, which was established in 2012, around 15 per cent of its users rely on the web version with most downloading its appa, which are available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The company said the numbers now learning Irish through the course across desktop and mobile have jumped and is likely to increase further now that it is available for use on phones.

Approximately 64 per cent of the Irish language course users are based in the US, while 9 per cent are in Ireland, Duolingo said. An additional 9 per cent of users are in Britain, while 6.5 per cent are in Canada and 3 per cent in Australia.

Game on

Part of the reason for the popularity of Duolingo is the fact that it is a game and so the emphasis is on fun, something that most Irish language learners will not be acquainted with. The app uses pictures, a smartphone’s microphone and video to help users learn to write and recite words and phrases. Users pick up points as they progress through the various levels, with fluent speakers able to take shortcuts to get to the most appropriate level without having to start at the beginning.

An independent study conducted by the City University of New York has shown that 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a full university semester of language education.

Duolingo, which counts more than 50 million users in total, said it doesn’t expect the introduction of Irish language courses to do much in terms of boosting its finances.

"Offering the course doesn't benefit us financially at all," admitted Gina Gotthilf, head of marketing and international development at Duolingo. "But we want to provide the opportunity for everyone to learn whatever language they want regardless of their financial background. That's why we set up Duolingo in the first place."

Duolingo, whose investors include the actor Ashton Kutcher, primarily makes its money via its website, where Duolingo users can volunteer to help translate web pages for clients such as CNN and BuzzFeed.

Companies who needs a webpage translated upload it to Duolingo and then that document gets presented to users who can translate it in order to practice the language they are learning. When the document is fully translated, Duolingo returns it to the original content owner who, depending on the type of document they uploaded, pays for the translation.

The company has also recently branched out and begun to offer a digital certification programme to compete with the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) proficiency testing system.

Duolingo closed a $20 million Series C round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in February.