It can be confusing!
Gente: people; A gente: we/us, or the people
It only means we/us if it has an "a" before "gente".
A trick to try (unless someone has a better idea) off the top of my head: when you see "a gente", see if you can use we or us as a translation (this will be the most common use of a gente), and if it makes sense, use it. If it doesn't, change it to "the people".
Yes, it is all in the context--thanks for pointing it out!
A gente quer ir ao cinema agora -- We want to go to the movies now
(Can also be said as "Nós queremos ir ao cinema agora", never as "A gente queremos ir ao cinema agora")
O que eu devo fazer com toda essa gente? -- What should I do with all those people?
(Can also be written as "O que devo fazer com todas essas pessoas" or "...todo esse povo")
Some are impossible to know out of context, like for example:
A gente quer mais pizza -- "We want more pizza" and/or "The people want more pizza"
Maybe it comes from "we the people want more pizza". I think that's a good way to think about it. That's why it can mean both unless you are specific. I can say that usually it means "we", but it is important to remember that it can mean "the people". =)
Because "a gente" is singular and conjugated the same way as "ele/ela/você". See, for example: http://www.semantica-portuguese.com/a-gente-18608/ or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnWCVZ6IN7Y.
It can be used as both in Brazil. I don't believe they use it as "we" in Portugal though.
Thank you for pointing this out. My friends from the Azores remind me when I attempt an expression from Duolingo that resonates in Brazil but falls flat there. It makes it more interesting and a lot of fun. Thanks also to Duo for making this course such an enjoyable experience.
When you say "the people" (as pessoas - they) you mean a group of people not includding you. "A gente" (we) means a group that you are includded in. And when you say "A gente" you have to use the verb in the third person singular. I hope you undertand, my English is not so good... ;-)
The people live here = As pessoas moram aqui / O povo mora aqui Looking at Davu's and Vivasaurus' comments it seems that it is rare for people to use "A gente" as "The people" but not completely incorrect. IT seems Duo is teaching the popular meaning of the word but rejecting the literal. In another thread I saw that "a gente" can be used in a derogatory way for a group of people but I have not actually researched that one.
In informal speech they are interchangeable. Using "a gente" means you don't need to use the longer 1st person plural conjugations (as emeyr says). It is worth reading vivisaurus's comment that "a gente" can still mean "the people" in some contexts. I have read elsewhere that because "a gente" has such a strong connection with "we/us", the meaning "the people" must be conveyed with "as pessoas" or "o povo".