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Are you speaking enough?

We could sum up the answer to this one by saying “probably not”, but then you wouldn’t have anything to read, and you would have clicked on this link for nothing. Let’s go into it a bit further and explore why you are probably not speaking enough.

A bheil Gàidhlig agad?

In Gaelic, we usually ask if someone has the language. We might even ask dè na cànanan a th’ agad? or something similar. In contrast, English usually wants to know if we speak a language. There is, of course, a lot of overlap, but the two things are not the same. I have a reading knowledge of several ancient and medieval languages, but I would never claim to speak any of them (although I did once write a song in Latin, but let’s leave that for now…). As an academic, I know many people who similarly study languages that are no longer spoken by native communities. However, I also have a stronger ability in reading several modern languages than I do in speaking them. For instance, my spoken Polish is at a relatively lower intermediate level, but I can read at a high intermediate level. So, if someone asked me a bheil Pòlais agad? I could justifiably say tha; but I tend to be shy about claiming that I speak the language. On the other hand, my spoken Chinese is at a much higher level than my reading ability in the language, so do I have Chinese in a more real sense than I have Polish? Well, in my view, not really. Being able to read articles, websites and even novels in a language with as rich a literature as that of Polish is a tremendous asset. And, as long as I do that, I am gradually building my general knowledge of the language, increasing my vocabulary and teaching myself the structures.

What this tells us is that it is important to think about your goals. For this reason, the Gaelic idea of having a language is probably a more flexible and more useful way to think about language learning.

What is your goal?

There are people who will have you believe that there are certain goals with the language that are somehow right and wrong. This is complete nonsense. Your goals are your own, and you shouldn’t let anyone else tell you that they are incorrect. If your entire reason for learning Gaelic is to be able to read Sorley MacLean’s poetry in its original language, then go ahead and learn to read Gaelic and never be ashamed that you are not able to hold a conversation. On the other hand, if your goal is to be able to reminisce about old family members with your great-aunt who is a native Gaelic speaker, and you have absolutely no need to be able to write the language, then go ahead and focus on that vocabulary domain and that particular competence.

I want to be a Gaelic-speaker

For many people, though, the idea of speaking a language is paramount, and exploring that is the real purpose of this post. It will probably not come as too much of a shock to you to know that, if you want to be a competent speaker of the language, you will have to practise speaking it. The question is: how much? The answer is that you must gauge the amount of time you have available on a regular basis, your access to fluent speakers, and the way you are going to set up your conversations. Remember, though: if you are able to do a couple of hours one week, but nothing for the next three weeks, you are not going to get as much benefit as you would get by breaking up those two hours into short conversations throughout the three weeks. A dozen ten-minute conversations will generally be more helpful in promoting fluency than a single two-hour conversation (at least at the pre-advanced stages).

Wait! Is ten minutes enough?

Well, ideally, you would probably aim for 15-30 minutes, if you can manage that, so as to allow the conversation to range around a bit. However, for people at a beginner, post-beginner or even lower intermediate level, very brief conversations taken very regularly may well be the best approach. This will allow you to keep enough Gaelic in your head to tide you over through the conversation without absolutely exhausting you. Remember that you will learn best when you are not stressed or anxious.

If you are taking a one-hour or two-hour class each week, you may feel like this should be enough time and yet you wonder why you aren’t progressing very quickly or gaining the confidence in your speaking ability. The reality is that you are probably not actually speaking all that much during your class. How many people are in the class? If you are taking a one-hour class, and the tutor speaks for at least a third of that time, you have only forty minutes. If you are doing whole-class activities, as opposed to paired work, this reduces your speaking time much further. On the other hand, if you are doing paired work, you are probably speaking to someone who is similarly hesitant and unsure: the conversation is going to be slow and unsteady (you may even be learning each other’s mistakes). Again, although this is speaking time, it is not the most productive speaking time that you could have.

If your goal to is to become a speaker of Gaelic, you should (ideally, within the first year of study) start speaking the language (with a fluent speaker) at least two or three times every week: if you can get that closer to every day, fantastic. Twice a week does work, though, in my experience. The amount of time you need to dedicate will depend on you: how fast do you want to learn, how fast can you learn, how much time do you have for preparing and then analysing your conversations, how much does it cost, how convenient is it to set up, and how much do you enjoy it (do not underestimate the importance of this last point)? My recommended sweet spot for a conversation length is about thirty minutes, if you are one-to-one with a fluent speaker. If you are part of a group, aim for forty-five to sixty minutes, so that everyone can talk. By preference, I would try to arrange one-to-one conversations with someone who is a really good speaker of the language, though: that will give you instant feedback on how you are progressing, and you will be able to find more effective ways of expressing what you want to say, rather than simply practising your mistakes. You will actually feel like you are having real conversations, which is tremendously motivating.

Thanks for that, but I don’t have a Gaelic conversation partner…

This can be a problem, of course. There are a couple of things you can try. First, many tutors (and others) are now online, and the pandemic has helped a lot of us improve our abilities with things like Skype, Teams, Zoom, etc. You can search on platforms like italki and LearnGaelic, or contact your local college, university, etc. and ask if they have any contacts. You may also try an old-fashioned Google search, as some tutors have their own websites. Or you may want to make contact with someone who is not a tutor, as such. Maybe there is a friend of a friend, who would appreciate just knowing someone to use their Gaelic with. If you are taking a Gaelic class, maybe the teacher will know someone you could either meet or phone once a week. If you are completely unable to arrange a real-time meeting, can you do conversations by recorded message, in the style of WhatsApp? That’s not as effective, since you don’t have to recognise what the person said and instantly respond, but it’s better than nothing.

Secondly, even less effective in some ways, but infinitely better than nothing, you actually do have a Gaelic conversation partner and you have simply forgotten about that handy-dandy person. You know at least one person who is learning Gaelic: you. Don’t get discouraged looking for a partner when you can actually have conversations with yourself. Of course, you run the risk of looking quite mad, but that’s all part of the fun of learning a language anyway. This is actually a trick I have used myself when learning languages, and it is surprisingly effective. One way of doing it is simply to set up and then conduct both sides of a conversation. If you have an active imagination, you could get into character as ‘yourself’ and ‘someone else’ (have fun making up a different background etc. for your other character), but it’s equally fine simply to play out the conversation as ‘yourself’ x 2. For instance:

YOU: Feasgar math. Is mise Barbara.

ALSO YOU: Feasgar math, Barbara. Is mise Barbara cuideachd. Cò às a tha thu?

STILL YOU: Tha mi à Fìobha. Agus thu fhèin?

YOU AGAIN: Tha mise à Fìobha cuideachd. Nach neònach sin!

The actual conversation topic is, of course, up to you. You would direct it around the vocabulary you are currently working on. An easy prompt might be something like:

YOU: Dè rinn thu aig d’ obair an-dè?

ALSO YOU: Obh obh! ’S e latha trang a bh’ ann…

(and then tell yourself a story about what went on at work yesterday). I hope you can see how it would be easy to play around with this model and make it useful for practising your ability to speak. If you feel weird about talking to yourself, try using a prop: some people use a cuddly toy (mainly because I tell them to), others use posters of celebrities, and others use a mirror. Another cunning trick you might try is to use your mobile phone. That way, you can have a Gaelic conversation with yourself while walking down the road or sitting at a park bench, and no one realises you are talking to yourself. I realise this may seem silly or embarrassing, but I assure you that it does work: in fact, I got to a fairly high level of speaking Spanish with no other conversation partner than myself... and I'm only a little bit mad.

The main problem with speaking on your own is that you are not getting any outside stimulus. Ordinarily, when we engage in conversation, we are actually practising not one but two of the competences: both speaking and listening. If you converse with yourself, you understand all of what your conversation partner said. In real conversation, this is not always true. The way to compensate for this is to make sure you are doing a lot of listening as well. Access audiobooks, radio programmes, television, YouTube, etc. Realistically, you should be doing this anyway. We need to practise speaking if we want to get good at speaking, but we will only have things to say if we also practise reading and listening. Language has to come into your brain first before it can go back out of your mouth. The more listening you do, the more authentic, rich and automatic your speaking will become: as long as you practise speaking it at least a couple of times a week for at least fifteen minutes.

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