"החתולים שותים את החלב."
Translation:The cats are drinking the milk.
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...when it is followed by...
(not when it is "preceded" by)
And the rule is so specific to the kamatz vowels (as shown above) that it doesn't even apply to the first word in this sentence, in which the ח in "cats" has a patach vowel (specifically a chataf patach), even though those vowels in both words have the "a" sound:
הַחֲתוּלִים שׁוֹתִים אֶת הֶחָלָב
Also, the nikud rules in general are so arcane that while that rule doesn't apply to "the cats" (ha-khatulím) it does apply to "the cat" (he-khatúl) because "cat" begins with a kamatz vowel. So "the cat sees the cats" would be he-khatúl ro-éh et ha-khatulím.
הֶחָתוּל רוֹאֶה אֶת הַחֲתוּלִים
Duolingo's website offers instructional tips for each skill; when you click on a skill there, choose the "tips" button instead of the "start" button to see the tips.
The use of את before a definite direct object is explained first in the tips for the "Food 1" skill and then in the tips for the "Dir. Obj." skill. Another way to find those tips is to use the following link to the tips for many (all?) skills and then search that text for all instances of the phrase "direct object".
Thanks for leading me to see how I could add clarity to my previous post about this rule. It is not based on a word's position in the sentence, nor does it apply it to the letter aleph. For the sentence in this exercise, the rule applies differently to two words only because of their different vowels under the ח, which should now be easier to see in that post.
That rule is followed in some of Duo's recordings, and is ignored in others. Also please note that many Israelis have told us, including the post by moderator airelibre on this page, that this is an arcane rule that is mostly ignored in all but formal usage. According to that advice, we can just say ha-khaláv and expect Israelis to say that, too.
The word you are using is הָאָדָם, pronounced ha-adám, regardless of where it appears in the sentence:
הָאָדָם אוֹהֵב אֶת הָאָדָם.
In addition to what Rich already wrote, I just want to note that this is a fairly complex subject, that I admit I don't know enough, just bits and pieces that I remember from my Biblical Hebrew classes. This is because regular Israelis nowadays don't really care for these rules in everyday language and the definite article ה is always pronounced as "ha", regardless of the letter following it.
You can look at this page, which gives basic overview of the rules and then there are other websites and textbooks which go further into the subject that you can find by doing a simple search on Google and doing your own research at your own pace:
This is first discussed in the notes associated with the "Direct Object" module. You probably know by now, as I am answering 4 mo after the question. אֵת, pronounced "et" is the completely indispensable signpost that the direct object which is coming is definite--that is "the milk" and not "milk". it is called a "definite direct object marker". It has no actual translation, but in more advanced sentence structure where it is placed a bit differently can be loosely translated as "the" You will not encounter that for a long while. It seems utterly foreign to the English learner, but your ear will begin to appreciate it over time, and using it will become natural. Example: אני אוכל לחם (I am eating bread) vs אני אוכל אֵת הלחם (I am eating THE bread). without nikud it is spelled the same as feminine "you", which is of course pronounced aht. the difference when nikud are added changes the pronunciation to "et". so it is אֵת vs אַת. How would you know if there are no nikud? By context--and eventually it will come to be completely natural. Tricky? yes, but if you wanted easy you would be studying esperanto