“It's a cool thing to learn a language that's rare.”
Many travelers want to practice a language before a trip to memorize a few key phrases — so they can ask where to find the train station or a good restaurant.
Those phrases typically make it a little easier to get around. But in the case of Irish, about 3 million people have used Duolingo to practice a language they won't need to visit Ireland.
Shannon O'Neill started learning Irish as part of her recovery from a serious illness.
“I thought that learning a language every day would help me with a brain exercise to do every day to get me back on track,” O'Neill, whose family has Irish roots, told Travel + Leisure.
“I started learning Irish so I could claim it,” she said. “Connecting with that part of my heritage has been absolutely amazing.”
After starting with 10 minutes a day, O'Neill worked up to an hour a day of Irish — and much more on the weekends. Now, she's on a three-month trip in Ireland, during which she's going to travel to different parts of the country and further practice the language.
“If you're learning a new language, just do it every day. That's my secret.”
However, having such easy access to Irish lessons wasn't a given in 2017.
“Irish was becoming an endangered language, with fewer and fewer people speaking it,” Karen Tsai, a software engineer at Duolingo, told Travel + Leisure. “And we thought we could do a lot of good there.”
To create lessons in Irish, Duolingo used its “incubator,” a system that crowdsources the creation of language courses with a community of volunteers.
“There are wonderful members of the community that were eager to share their language,” said Tsai. “We ourselves were pleasantly surprised with how popular Irish has become.”
There are only about 100,000 native speakers.
Duolingo's contribution to teaching the Irish language was even recognized by the Irish government: President Michael Higgins met with some of Duolingo's team last year.
“It seems a lot of people are trying to get back in touch with their heritages,” Tsai said. “It's a cool thing to learn a language that's rare.”