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Duolingo's St Andrew's Day milestone for Gaelic triggers teenage memories of being lost for words

By Hector MacKenzie

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Oh dear!
Oh dear!

IT was exactly four years ago that the world's most popular language learning platform Duolingo launched its first Scottish Gaelic course on St Andrew's Day.

Since then, 1.5 million people have given it a go, amongst them high-profile celebrities like Line of Duty actor Martin Compston and Outlander star Sam Heughan.

For many – even some like me brought up in the Highlands with a native Gaelic speaking parent – Gaelic has not been the default second language, although it is now much more widely available in schools and early learning settings.

Well they would say that, wouldn't they? (And yet, it's kind of true!)
Well they would say that, wouldn't they? (And yet, it's kind of true!)

What second language were you first exposed to? Have you subsequently dipped into Duolingo to keep the grey cells active, pick up some holiday essentials or reconnect with your culture?

I'll never forget my first language immersion experience on a school exchange trip to France.

Being packed off to stay with complete strangers in a foreign country for three weeks as a teenager seemed par for the course back in the day. I'd hazard a guess the risk assessment paperwork alone these days would pretty quickly kill the thrill of that step into the unknown.

Back in the 1980s, my folks waved me off with a cohort of fellow Fortrose Academy fourth years for a sink or swim experience staying with French families in various parts of that fine country. Once you got picked up by your host family, that was it – sink or swim.

I'll never forget my opening gambit when the kindly father of my randomly selected language exchange partner, Sylvestre, sought to establish contact. He didn't have a word of English and my schoolboy French was at best rudimentary. But I was there to learn. Rubbing his stomach and miming the motions of food being forked into his mouth, it didn't take a genius to work out he was asking if I was hungry. As it happened, I was starving. I'm going to like this man, I thought.

I was 13, unable to appreciate then what a wonderful, culturally enriching gift that would be and politely declined. More fool me. Yet somewhere deep down there was always a fascination with this language that came easy as breathing to my Dad.

The gears whirred ever so slowly in my travel-weary brain as I formulated a response. I had flashbacks to the language lab headphones, listening to what Jean-Paul and Marie France had got up to with croissants and café au lait. It was my big chance to make a great first impression as a plucky linguist in the making. What I should have said was j'ai faim (literally 'I have hunger' or more simply, 'I'm hungry'. Simple enough. What I actually said was je suis une petite femme.I thought I was saying 'I am a little hungry'. Instead of that, I'd said: 'I am a little woman.'

Linguistically, nul points. But it was an unintended icebreaker that prompted a belly laugh from the father and an over-generous thumbs up. It eased the tension and plunged me into a sink-or-swim 21-day adventure during which we all simply had to find a way to understand each other. And, of course, we did. And it was great fun. That was how language was learned then.

A few years before that, my late father, a native Gaelic speaker whose roots lay in Wester Ross, asked me very casually if I fancied learning the language. I was 13, unable to appreciate then what a wonderful, culturally enriching gift that would be and politely declined. More fool me. Yet somewhere deep down there was always a fascination with this language that came easy as breathing to my Dad. I'd hear him conversing with Gaelic-speaking friends on the phone, fascinated by the lilt and rhythm of the language and occasionally asking him what this or that word meant.

He would occasionally explain to me how some words simply had no English translation yet were just the perfect way to describe whatever it was they were describing. He alluded to the beauty of the poetry and even though I could see there something in it.

Back in his day he had won prizes at the Mod for singing and would sometimes drift off into a song if he heard a tune being played on the radio. It was in his blood and, somewhere perhaps by extension, also in mine.

Cue the world's most popular language-learning platform Duolingo which can claim to be the most downloaded education app worldwide.

Now you know how to say it in Gaelic.
Now you know how to say it in Gaelic.

The free app aims to make learning languages fun with bite-sized lessons that feel like playing a game. The company's genuinely impressive mission is to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available. I first came to it through trying to learn a bit of Mandarin Chinese. I first met my wife while doing language exchange in Beijing. Her second language, studied at university, was Romanian. Our initial exchange notes were scrawled on coffee shop napkins.

Her English flourished to such an extent that she has been able to hold down full-time jobs in an English-speaking country and is utterly fearless in phoning anyone about anything. That's immersion in its purest form and it takes guts to do it. My Mandarin flourished just far enough to be able to tell a Beijing taxi driver where I wanted to go or to order beef noodles in the restaurant across the road from my workplace.

For the record, I'm a fan of Stornoway.
For the record, I'm a fan of Stornoway.
This one is useful.
This one is useful.

Whether it was the passing of my much-missed father – nicknamed 'Heckie Norman' to help distinguish him from all the other Hector Mackenzies knocking around Wester Ross – or the primal call of something in the blood, I was drawn to give Gaelic a go on Duolingo.

And it turns out I'm not alone.

Some St Andrew's Day stats shared by those fine folk at Duolingo...

  • 1.5 million people have started learning Scottish Gaelic on the app since it was launched on St Andrew’s Day 2019.
  • The free Duolingo course has seen a 25 per cent increase in daily learners year on year since St Andrew's Day 2021.
  • There are currently 450,000 active learners of Scottish Gaelic on Duolingo today.
  • The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2022 found the number of Scots who can speak some Gaelic has doubled from 15 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent in 2021.

Now, true, the key words there might be some Gaelic but you have to start somewhere, right?

Colin Watkins, Duolingo’s UK country manager said: “We’re delighted Scots Gaelic has reached 1.5 million learners on the app, which I challenge to reach 2 million by this time next year. It's great to see so many people cite culture as their reason to learn, showing the role language plays in all our lives, something we are proud to celebrate this St Andrew’s Day. Our mission at Duolingo is to make education accessible, which is why our Scots Gaelic, French, Latin, and other courses in 39 other languages are free to all.”

Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, The National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, said: “There has always been an interest in Scotland’s Gaelic language and culture, especially with such a vast Scottish diaspora, but learning apps like Duolingo and the growth of Gaelic Medium Education in schools have made the language so much more accessible to a larger audience.

This, to be clear, from a section on the weather.
This, to be clear, from a section on the weather.

“Gaelic on Duolingo has played a big part in the expansion of learning resources and opportunities elsewhere over the past few years. At Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, we have had students come to us via Duolingo, starting with our An Cùrsa Inntrigidh or An Cùrsa Comais immersion courses, before going on to study on our degree courses. The multi-media SpeakGaelic course has also looked to build on the success of Duolingo and provide additional content and learning opportunities. Long may this growth continue.”

On a recent week off work, I found myself with precious spare minutes to practice on the Duolingo app, chuckling my way through the apparent obsession with Irn Bru and salted gannet. It must have been a busy work week for everybody else on the app as I found myself topping the so-called Diamond League at the end of a week-long period. Let's be honest – this was not down to a winning way with the lingo but rather simply having the time to drill what I was (very) slowly learning.

It was a proud moment but it didn't last with relegation to the Obsidian league just a few days away. You need to keep up the pratice with Duolingo!
It was a proud moment but it didn't last with relegation to the Obsidian league just a few days away. You need to keep up the pratice with Duolingo!

It was perhaps this league-topping brush with glory that I prompted the awful mistake of telling a friend in the street that I was learning on the app, remembering just a split second after the words were out of my mouth that he was in fact a competent speaker.

You know what happens in those situations, don't you? He came at me enthusiastically with a machine gun barrage of words which might just as well have been Urdu for all I was able to pick up. It didn't help that we were standing out on the street in the middle of Inverness. As an adult learner, my tendency in these situations is to panic and desperately start sifting the brain's dusty language memory banks for an appropriate response. Frustratingly for me, that involves frist going through the drawers marked French and Mandarin before – if I'm very lucky – finding something in the very small container marked 'Gaelic'.

'Tha buntata blasta', I ventured. 'Tha mi greannach.' Where had that come from? Duolingo.

He smiled.

Probably a good thing.
Probably a good thing.

"'You've just said 'the tasty potato'. And 'I am grumpy'."

I'd revealed my level – and it wasn't diamond. But I'd also broken the ice. Again.

Full circle to the schoolboy French days.

Will my Gaelic get any further? Let's see.

For now, 'tìoraidh!'

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