By Úna Kehily
The internet has made language learning more accessible than ever and the arrival of apps like Duolingo has opened up Irish to a new generation of learners. In fact, Irish is the fastest growing language on Duolingo, with over one million weekly users worldwide. It’s also the most-learned language in Ireland, ahead of Spanish, French and German. Lessons are quick and easy, lasting only five minutes each, and can be done from anywhere as long as you have internet connection. The app is set up to reward users for their continued use and has taken language learning out of the dreaded secondary school classroom and made it into a gamified and gratifying experience.
However, it’s not just on Duolingo that we can see an increase in interest in the Irish language. Despite the apparent psychological scars left by Leaving Cert Irish, younger people are recognising the significance of their national language. From conversations with friends and from what I see online, there is a renewed interest in learning Irish and engaging with Irish language media. TG4 has seen a surge in viewership and is now the 6th most watched channel in Ireland, ahead of Channel 4 and BBC Two. On TikTok and Instagram, Irish-language content has taken off, with accounts like Bloc TG4 creating content aimed exclusively at the younger generation. Comment sections are no longer filled with “What’s the point in Irish” or “Irish is a dead language”. Instead people are expressing interest in learning and enquiring about where they can start.
All of this is positive. However, is casual online engagement with a language enough to master it? Learning a language requires long-term concentrated effort. Five minutes a day on Duolingo or watching a short TikTok will never be enough to provide you with the complex grammar and extensive vocabulary you need to achieve fluency.
Additionally, young people in the Gaeltacht need to be empowered to speak their language, not just native English speakers. There is no doubt that Gaeltacht populations are in decline and without the younger generation to keep the communities alive, it is likely that they will continue to diminish. Promotion of the Irish language can’t just be aimed at the individual and their decision to learn, it must push for thriving Irish-speaking populations in the Gaeltacht regions.
Ultimately, there is no point in a language unless there is a place to speak it. It needs community to be kept alive and to be renewed. The young people who are showing interest in Irish now need opportunity to use it, not just in a learning setting, but in everyday life with friends, in workplaces and out in the community. We need to take the momentum that Irish has at the moment and turn that into a movement for change beyond Duolingo.