Scottish Gaelic’s Journey to Duolingo 

Ciaran Iòsaph MacAonghais – a Primary Teacher from Fort William and co-creator of the Scottish Gaelic Duolingo course – takes us through Scottish Gaelic’s journey to Duolingo. [follow Ciaran at @thaseomath ]

Scottish Gaelic is the latest language to feature on Duolingo – the world’s largest language learning platform. Over 60,000 people have signed up to learn Gaelic which is spoken by around 57,000 in Scotland since its launch three days ago.

I have always believed that given the opportunity and the platform to do so that more and more people would choose to learn Gaelic – and now we know this to be true. Importantly, the course is 100% free to use and accessible for anyone who has access to a device.

Previously, there were around 5,500 learning Gaelic in Scotland and we have already raised this number significantly and hopefully it will continue to rise in the coming weeks and months.

There is no single solution that will save the Gaelic language. Much more needs to be done to support Native Speakers in Gaelic speaking communities, but having a high profile starting point for learning is still a powerful thing. In a small language community like this, every speaker makes a real difference.

The course was created over a period of 7 months  by a team of volunteers from across Scotland (with one contributor living in America) and the help of Duolingo’s dedicated staff.  We were able to release the course 8 months ahead of schedule and according to Duolingo our small team worked to “a record breaking timescale.” Other Duolingo contributors have asked how we managed to do it so quickly. My response was that it’s amazing what you can do when you stop sleeping or going outside! That is an exaggeration but I think the level of dedication that went into this from the team is really remarkable. We are still working around the clock, making changes, promoting the course and responding to feedback.

The first edition of the course consists of around 6000 recorded sentences and teaches around 1000 individual words. The course has full audio, which not all courses have from day one. We initially aimed for about 20 skills to be complete at launch but we managed 34 with each skill consisting of between 4 and 6 lessons, each teaching between 5 and 9 words. The course is not only a great one stop shop for learning the basics, but it would compliment other resources such as the excellent Learn Gaelic  – website and dedicated classes.

Getting Gaelic on the radar 

People have been campaigning to get the language onto Duolingo for years and key to getting Duolingo to take the project forward was getting people to apply to contribute on Duolingo’s website. The success of smaller languages such as Irish, Welsh and Hawaiian further fuelled demand.

A Social Media campaign on Twitter  and Facebook was set up and this certainly helped push Gaelic to the forefront. Thousands of people who wanted to learn Gaelic made their voice heard to Duolingo, and to their absolute credit the staff at Duolingo listened and could not have been more supportive and helpful in bringing this to fruition.

Building a Course 

Duolingo reached out to some who had applied to contribute, including myself. The course (like all new Duolingo courses) is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The first job (undertaken by Eilidh Cormack) was to translate the initial 800 or so words we knew we needed to teach from this guidance.  I then planned out the building blocks of grammar that I knew a learner would need to progress. The next stage was to write the curriculum itself. All 6000 Gaelic sentences and their translations were inputted into a Google Document. The Duolingo staff and volunteer community were fantastic during this whole process. I have been working on this course for seven months. I got married 8 months ago and I have probably spent more time with this document than with my wife. I even brought my laptop on honeymoon.

The next stage was preparing this curriculum to go into the incubator. More team members came along soon after including Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh and Joanne MacLellan who both played an absolutely key role in bringing the course to completion. We then had to input every possible combination for every sentence in Gaelic and English before uploading the course to Duolingo’s Incubator in full. Changes and tweaks were made over a period of weeks and we began recording audio for all 6000 sentences and also all of the courses individual words. This team of volunteers working from home (which included both my uncle and grandmother from Eriskay) managed to record everything in the month before launch and the last sentences were finished within minutes of the course going live.

What now? 

I am blown away by the reaction to the course. Feedback seems to be overwhelmingly positive, we have even had a professor of Gaelic comment on the quality of the course itself and the Gaelic you can hear in the audio recording. The course is currently in “Beta” which means we are working around the clock to respond to feedback and correct any errors and hope to get these ironed out as soon as possible. Once the course graduates from Beta, we are planning on expanding it significantly. My hope is to see the course used in schools and to see the number of people learning in Scotland and overseas grow and grow. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to learn and shared the course with family and friends.

Help us support the course and the Gaelic language  by signing up to learn here! 

Read and follow Bella’s Gaelic content here, including our regular Gaelic columnist, Fiona MacIsaac from North Uist.


Comments (21)

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  1. Ewan Kennedy says:

    I’ve had a few false starts with Gaelic, because learning from home it’s very difficult to get pronunciation even approximately right. The audio in Duolingo is terrific, with different speakers adding to the experience. I’ve been on enough to be amazed at how much work has gone into getting it going. Huge thanks to all, it’s greatly appreciated. Meal do naidheachd!


  2. Des says:

    Fantastic achievement. Wish something like this had been around 30 years ago when I started learning. It is the missing link for Gaelic learners, an accessible start at your own time and pace into the Gaelic language and culture. For so long the lack of an accessible and affordable structure across Scotland has hampered learners, this is a system fit for the new millennium and the way we live our lives now. Anns na bliadhnaichean ri thighinn, bidh mòran luchd-ionnsachaidh fada nur comain.

  3. Mari Beagrie says:

    I’m so happy that this resource has become available. Thank you very much to all who worked on it.

  4. Michael Johnston says:

    I’m an American of Scottish descent. I’m very excited to have begin learning Gaelic in Duolingo after years of trying—and failing— to find courses locally.

    Thank you to the entire team!

  5. Lisa Buchanan says:

    Tremendous effort and a brilliant way to enable learners in a cost effective, engaging way to keep the language alive in the minds of learners.

    Thank you so much.

  6. Alistair MacKichan says:

    was excited when first heard of this. I follow Bella Caledonia but was unaware of the launch until my wife told me about it. My son has been learning Gaelic for a while, and he has picked up on Duolingo too. I have always been put off learning because of the daft spelling, which I thought was an inability of English transcribers to cope with a non-Romance language, and because the mainland Gaelic of my ancestors is possibly already dead. However, all doubts aside, I will take this journey.

    1. Stephen Branley says:

      I’m not sure you can blame the English or the fact Gaelic is not a romance language for the daft spellings given that Welsh is also a Celtic language and yet has no such problems with spelling! Once you appreciate that some letters have different sounds to English and that the double letters (Dd, LL, FF) are letters in their own right, Welsh is nicely phonetic.

  7. Douglas says:

    Excellent work, a huge thanks to all involved…

    This is something the Scottish government could and should have done decades ago… what on earth do we have a Minister of Culture for if not to offer the basic essentials for language learners?

    But to get SG to show any initiative on indigenous languages is almost impossible. These young Gaelic speakers have put Fiona Hyslop and Nicola Sturgeon to shame…

    The Catalan govt set up their own platform for self-learners maybe 15 or 20 years ago for anybody interested:

    1. Tricia Dickson says:

      Thanks for the link to learn Catalan. I know a few words to be polite but it would be great to have a conversation with my friends!

  8. Stephen Branley says:

    Excellent news, and congratulations on getting the course up and running. I’m not in a position to learn Gaelic as I’m currently occupied with Welsh, but it’s great to see efforts to keep our indigenous languages alive and, hopefully, growing!

  9. Julian Smith says:

    I’ve been waiting for this for a while. Very pleased it’s been launched. Really enjoying using it.

  10. Tricia Dickson says:

    I’ve been using this for three days now and my main struggle is the Gaelic spelling, but I’m hoping that gets easier with time. Well done to everyone involved.

  11. Michael Murray says:

    s math a rinn thu

  12. Donald J Campbell says:

    I tried to learn Norwegian from tape and support book some years ago. When we arrived in Bergen to travel to our accommodation I asked the driver of the bus in my best Norwegian if the bus was going anywhere near the address. He looked at me and said ‘ Do you speak English’. Well that was the end of that. The best way to learn is to live in the country or within the community for a long period, otherwise it’s an empty gesture. You have to ask yourself why you need to learn the language.However good luck with your venture.

  13. Donald J Campbell says:

    Well done to KJ for setting this up. All these politicians in Edinburgh talk about culture, language etc and it takes people like Kieran to actually do the hard work. Anyway last time I was in Edinburgh I could not find my way round for Gaelic signs pointing to Scottish Parliament, executive this and that. All I wanted to do was find my way to Easter Road.Come on you government hoi ti hois come to the islands to smell the Gale force Westerlies and not sit in air conditioned offices shuffling paper around. Anyway the Scottish parliament should have been located in Stirling. Try not to hang on to your power too long before the islands become independent. The Western Isles voted to stay within the union, so does that mean we can become part of Uk if Nicola decides to become independent. Co dhuibh a deibheidh mo ‘rant’ tha mi dochashas gu deithead gu math dhut Kieran agus do cho obraichean. Bha mi sa. Merchant navy air son corr is da fhichead bliadhna agus chualami iomadach canan math agus dona. Tha mi beo Ann an Uidhist a deas. Kieran ciamar a dheibh mi min cuairt air am prescriptive spelling Ann’s a Ghailig. Tha iAd a feuchainn go arathachadh gu beurla. Moran Taing dhut agus thig a cheilidh orm uair sam both Ann a Smercleit. Tha mi gu Math air eolach mun Oban. Bha sinn a fuireach Ann a Seil island air son ochd bliadhna agus bha mi Ann a sgoil aird an obain air son coig bliadhna. Cha Neil e furusta a bhii air Falbh bho tir do shinsearan.Foadaidh du fhein mo spelling a cheartachadh. Taing.

  14. babs macgregor says:

    Deagh oidhirp dha rìreabh bhuaibh uile. Mòran taing ! ‘Se platform tarraingeach a th’ann an Duolingo airson tòrr de mo charaidean.
    Suas leis a’ghàidhlig!

  15. Mateo says:

    Why are you calling it ‘Gaelic’. ‘Gaelic refers to Irish. In Scotland, it’s ‘Gàidhlig’. I personally much prefer Irish. Although they sound very similar, Irish/Gaelic sounds more sweet. And it’s easier to learn. And once you can speak Irish/Gaelic, you can understand Gàidhlig quite well. Tír gan teanga, Tír gan anam.

  16. Julian McArdle says:

    I’m currently going to Gaelic classes, and have been dabbling with Gaelic since the 1980s with programmes such as Speaking Our Language” and others. I started doing the Duolingo Gaelic course on 30th of November, St Andrew’s Day, very appropriate and much appreciated! It’s great!

  17. John Clifford says:

    Cha robh an beagan Gàidhlig agam, ach tha an Gàidhlig agam gu math a-nis! Tapadh leibh, DuoLingo agus a h-uile duine an-seo!

  18. Jonathan O says:

    We love languages. At the moment we are studying chinese at Hanyu Chinese School in Barcelona. However after reading the post we will give Gaelic a chance too

  19. Doug McColl says:

    I’m a bad student but the course was and is great! Duolingo keeps sending me messages to make me feel guilty for not being more diligent. If they could rouse the ghost of my uncle Fergus and get him after me, I’m sure they would. I’ve told a lot of people about the course and how proud it makes me feel to be learning the tongue of my deceased family members (they didn’t die yesterday if you’re concerned; the last one was 14 years ago). Thank you to Duolingo and the gang who brought this course to fruition.

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