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The voice should have helped you, but it does not...
- un insecte est un animal: you should hear a T liaison between "est" and "un" -> EH-T-UN
- un insecte et un animal: there is never a liaison after "et" -> EH-UN
In addition, "est" can often have its liaison skipped over, in which case they're homophones even with a word with a vowel following.
Duolingo's style of French pronunciation seems to be based only on the mandatory liaisons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liaison_%28French%29#Obligatory_liaison
Not necessarily. Duolingo puts the discussion for all question types (translation both ways, multiple choice, listening) using a given sentence on the same page.
I'm seeing a pattern here: anything that lives and it not a plant is an animal.
I am still trying to figure out the masculine/feminine for so many words. I thought I figured out a rule that if a word ends with an 'e' that it is feminine, but obviously that is not always the case, as in "un insecte."
The 'A spider is an animal' questions should all be followed by this to end the debates!
an arthapod is an animal (and a inscect but not all inscects are arthopods they have to have 6 legs and 3 body segments)
Is there a rule of thumb to identifying masculine and feminine words in french?
There are a few trends, but no rule of thumb, unfortunately. You will have to learn each new noun with its own article.