This is an expansion on, and update of, a post I originally wrote for the Facebook page “IRISH FOR BEGINNERS” in April of 2016, and which I published on the original “Geeky Gaeilgeoir” blog on Tumblr in July of 2016. The original can still be found in the “files” section of the “IRISH FOR BEGINNERS” page.
You see it everywhere. It’s mentioned on virtually every Irish language discussion forum or Facebook page, and shows up in the “resources” hand-outs at almost every immersion weekend. It seems that everyone these days is in love with Duolingo. (www.duolingo.com).
It comes as a surprise to some, therefore, that I’m not a huge Duolingo fan – at least not when it comes to learning Irish.
What’s the problem with Duolingo?
Let me start by saying that I don’t “dislike” Duolingo. In fact, I think it may work just fine for languages that have a wide pool of native and fluent speakers from which to draw, as well as a significant body of good written and spoken examples on line. – French, for example, or Spanish.
I even think that, at a certain level, it can be useful for Irish learners. I simply don’t consider it a good choice for beginners. Here’s why:
1) I’ve encountered many mistakes originating from Duolingo both in grammar and in pronunciation (mostly via people who have posted questions about these on the The Irish Language Forum or on Facebook pages). Yes, most of these mistakes eventually get corrected, but not before some beginners have picked them up and internalized them.
UPDATE: Duolingo now has a native Connacht speaker doing the recordings, which should mitigate the pronunciation issues somewhat.
2) I’ve seen beginners there arguing points of grammar and pronunciation with experienced and even native speakers, with their supporters rallying around them, even if they’re wrong. Do you really want to be learning from people who don’t know what they’re talking about, but who insist on their own way? Language learning by consensus is an iffy proposition to begin with, and when it becomes a popularity contest, accuracy flies out the window.
3) I believe that, when you’re a beginner, you should focus on the language as it’s actually spoken (a lot of those Duolingo sentences are pretty bizarre!). If you want basics to become automatic, you need to be practicing things people actually say, not the equivalent of “my hovercraft is full of eels.” Yes, I know that bizarre phrases are part of Duolingo’s teaching methodology – I just don’t happen to agree with that methodology.
Unlike many other languages, Irish has a fairly small pool of native or fluent speakers, and relatively few of those are likely to be hanging out on Duolingo (There are some there. I know because I know them. But do you?). In addition, much of the Irish on the web (both written and spoken) is pretty poor. This makes it more difficult for programs that are dependent on input from knowledgeable individuals to provide a solid learning experience.
Once you have sufficient Irish under your belt, you may find Duolingo to be a fun place to reinforce what you’ve learned, but I only recommend it AFTER you have enough Irish to spot a lot of the mistakes (and preferably if you have somewhere to go to get questions answered by people you know to be knowledgeable. The aforementioned The Irish Language Forum is a good place to go for that kind of support)..
So what’s a poor beginner to do?
Every time I mention my aversion to beginners using crowd-sourced sites such as Duolingo, someone inevitably asks me if I can recommend something better (often multiple times in the same thread because the topic keeps coming up, and people rarely read preceding posts). Of course, what they usually mean is “can you recommend something better that’s also free.”
As a matter of fact, I can.
Rather than keep reinventing the wheel, I’m going to put my recommendations here, where I and others can link to them, and where I can update them as needed.
So, without further ado, here is…
GG’s Guide to Really Good (And Totally Free) Irish Learning Programs!
Now You’re Talking/Irish on Your Own*
This comprehensive self-teaching course, which included a book and audio tapes, as well as a weekly BBC television program designed to reinforce the lessons, was originally published in the mid ‘90s.
It is now out of print, alas. Until fairly recently, copies of the book were still available from An Siopa Gaeilge in Donegal, but they’ve sold out of them now as well.
The really great news, though, is that the DFW Gaelic League in Texas (a branch of Conradh na Gaeilge) has the entire course – text, audio, and TV programs – on their website, and it’s completely free of charge!
The site is nicely laid out, with text, audio, and video all grouped together by lesson.
This is the course I recommend most frequently for beginners. It’s well-designed for adult learners, and very accessible. The pronunciation is mainly Ulster, but other dialects are also represented. All the recordings are by native speakers.
You really can’t go wrong with this one, even if you ultimately want to switch to a different dialect (most adult learners start with a mixture of dialects, and may or may not choose to specialize later on). Here’s the link:
* This course was originally published as “Now You’re Talking” in Ireland, and as “Irish on Your Own” in the U.S.
“Buntús Cainte” is another highly respected self-teaching method. Lessons based on “Buntús Cainte,” including audio, are available for free on-line at Memrise.:
Simply click on “Start Learning Now” to begin the course. You’ll be prompted to log in using Facebook. Pronunciation is based on the Connacht dialect, but the grammar is based on the official standard.
While these lessons are intended to be a supplement to the book (which is out of print, but still widely available), they can also be used on their own.
The Philo-Celtic Society
The Philo-Celtic Society offers free email classes via Yahoo group, using the respected texts “Buntús Cainte” and “Progress in Irish.” Just join the group, pass a brief “anti-spam” test, and select your class! Learn more at http://www.philo-celtic.com/classes.html
Is Féidir Liom
I’m less familiar with this fully on-line program (whose name means “I can”) than I am with the others, but it comes well-recommended. It was originally developed by a teacher to help parents and grandparents help their children and grandchildren who were learning Irish at school.
Pronunciation leans toward Munster, from what I’ve been able to hear, but the grammar and spelling appear to be standardized.
This course also includes games, which may be attractive to people who enjoy the games on Duolingo. You can check it out at the link below:
Other Helpful Free Resources
Teanglann.(www.teanglann.ie) This is a free, searchable, on-line compilation of some of the most respected Irish-English dictionaries in the world, and pronunciation is provided for most of the words (but not for inflected forms).
It also includes a grammar database, which is very useful as you get into more complicated sentences.
It will also show you examples of usage, which is extremely valuable when you start composing your own sentences!
Forvo (http://forvo.com/languages/ga/) Forvo is a pronunciation database.
I offer this link with a slight caution. If you use it, I strongly recommend only choosing recordings that feature native speakers or very careful/advanced learners. Remember…just because a person is from Ireland does not mean that he or she has good Irish! If in doubt, ask!
Abair.ie (www.abair.ie). The original Irish-pronunciation synthesizer! It’s generally pretty good (it features recordings by native speakers from all three major dialects). It does do better with single words or simple phrases than it does with whole sentences, however.
Free Listening Resources
Even as an absolute beginner, it’s extremely valuable to listen to naturally spoken Irish (as opposed to the slowed down, extremely clear diction of learning audio) as often as possible.
You may not understand much more than “agus” at first, but listening like this trains your ear so that, as you begin speaking, you’ll develop a natural cadence (it’s also fun, and a break from working though workbooks).
Here are my favorite listening resources, both completely free of charge:
Irish language television! Click on “Player” (or Seinnteoir in the Irish interface) and you can choose from a huge archive of programs of all types (dramas, documentaries, game shows, etc.).
Typically all of the programs are subtitled, except for the news and children’s programming. You can also choose your subtitles on some of TG4’s on-line programming. The default is English, but you can click on “cc” at the bottom of the screen to switch to Irish subtitles (if they have them available) or to no subtitles.
As of this writing Irish subtitles aren’t available on all programs, but I expect that this will change if the new options are popular. This is a wonderful boon to learners, as you can start by watching shows with the English subtitles and, once your Irish is a little stronger, watch the shows with the Irish subtitles (then watch them with the English subtitles to check your understanding).
Later on you can do the same with no subtitles, checking your understanding against the Irish or English version. So far this is only available on-line, so if you’re watching TG4 in Ireland, you won’t’ be able to change the subtitles on your television (yet!). Also, if you’re running Explorer 8 or Windows ‘95 (or older) you will need to update to a newer platform.
Raidió na Gaeltachta (www.rte.ie/rnag/)
Irish language radio! There are several other radio stations that have mostly Irish content, and they’re all enjoyable and worth listening to, but I particularly like this one because so much of it is native speech.
Turn it on and listen as you go about your work. As with TG4, you won’t understand much at first, but your brain will be picking up the unique cadence, structure, and sounds of the language.
Willing to Spend a LITTLE Money?
If you’re willing and able to open your pocket just a little bit, here are a couple of really good self-teaching program that won’t cost you much money, and that will pay off huge dividends in terms of starting your language learning on the right foot.
“Enjoy Irish!” is a self-teaching program developed by Oideas Gael. It consists of a very user-friendly book accompanied by full audio on CD and can be had for just €15.(about $17 as of this writing) plus shipping.
There is also an app available for both iPhone and Android for about $10 that follows the format of the book and allows you to learn while on the go. It’s not necessary, but is a nice addition if you can afford it.
Progress In Irish
This little book is a must-have for any serious Irish learner. While it can be used as a self-teaching course, it’s best for reinforcing and reviewing the basics.
One Last Word (Well, Almost)
As I said at the start of this post, I don’t dislike Duolingo. It has its place, and may be very useful for learners of more widely spoken languages, especially if your goal is simply being able to communicate in those languages.
I just can’t recommend it, though, for beginning learners of endangered minority languages such as Irish, where the goal isn’t simply to communicate (Let’s face it: No one NEEDS Irish in order to communicate. I hate to say it, but it’s true), but to preserve an important part of Ireland’s culture and history (tír gan teanga tír gan anam – a land without a language is a land without a soul).
When you’re beginning is when it’s most important that you establish a good foundation. It will pay off as you progress in the language and find you don’t have bad habits to unlearn (that’s the voice of experience talking!)
Tús maith leath na hoibre (A good start is half the work)
Slán go fóill,
Wait, There’s More! PS: Mini Irish Lesson for the Day:
A common mistake among beginners is to use the word “saor” to describe something that is free of charge. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. “Saor” means “free” as in “free from bondage.”
If you want to say that something doesn’t cost money, you have to use the term “saor in aisce”: literally “free of cost/obligation.”
In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada. For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/