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Getting better at pronouncing Gaelic

Before we even get into this one, let’s take a moment to think about why it is so important. As a lifelong language learner, I have often encountered people who have a hard time accepting how important pronunciation is. In fact, this could well have been a topic in the ‘myths about learning Gaelic’ section, if I had looked at it from a different perspective. As always, it is tempting to make a judgement that you are simply not good at a thing and to move from there to deciding that that thing is not worth bothering with. If you find that this is your reaction, try to recognise it as a thing that is holding you back and move past it.

Pronouncing the language correctly is important because the sounds of the language are an integral part of the language. When Gaelic is a spoken language, it has meaning only through its sounds. Therefore, if we pronounce the sounds wrongly, we are not really speaking Gaelic: we are speaking a rough approximation of Gaelic. Does that matter? Well, yes, it does, because we ideally want other Gaelic speakers to understand what we say. There is nothing more motivating when you are learning a language than having a genuine, spontaneous, fluent interaction with another person who speaks that language. But, if your pronunciation is causing the other speaker comprehension problems, your interaction will not be as spontaneous or fluent. Not only that, but the other speaker might well be less keen to carry on interacting in Gaelic, assuming that your poor pronunciation mirrors a poor grasp of the language in general. Since you really need to persuade people to speak as much Gaelic with you as possible, in order to keep improving, it is crucial that you don’t let pronunciation put people off talking to you.

The second reason why it is important to master good pronunciation is that it is always easier to hear sounds if you know how to make those sounds yourself. The better your pronunciation gets in Gaelic, the easier you will find listening and understanding native speakers.

At this point, people often say something like “but I don’t want to pretend to be from a particular place if I’m not from there, so I don’t want to acquire [e.g.] a Lewis accent.” First of all, there is nothing wrong with acquiring a specific accent when you learn a language, and – no matter how good you get – people will almost certainly not believe you are actually from Lewis (or wherever), so don’t worry about that. Secondly, pronouncing words authentically and acquiring an accent are not really the same thing. An accent is an accumulation of sound features, which are always applied in consistent ways. The chances of an adult learner of Gaelic acquiring all of the relevant features of a particular accent are not high, since you are going to be listening to content generated by speakers of several different dialects, whereas a native speaker primarily heard a single dialect at the developmental stages. Furthermore, you would also need to acquire the specific intonation of that place before you would fool people into thinking you were from there. So, again, don’t let a concern like this hold you back from making a proper effort to learn to make authentic Gaelic sounds.

The third reason why it is important to master pronunciation is because it makes it easier for you to acquire vocabulary. For this reason, I always recommend making a big effort with pronunciation at an early stage in your learning (it is, however, never too late to improve!). Good pronunciation helps you acquire vocabulary in two main ways. Firstly, it helps you pick out the sounds of unfamiliar words another speaker uses, and that means you can ask for help: “Hey, you said… What is that word?” (and you will preferably say that in Gaelic). Secondly, it means that you can use extensive reading to boost your vocabulary immensely. Having a strong grasp of the pronunciation allows you to acquire words from any written text, which enormously increases your potential exposure to the language (it is almost always easier to get hold of a book, website, pamphlet, etc. than an actual Gaelic speaker…).

How do you get good at it, then?

The key thing is learning to notice the sounds. The only way to do this is to engage in both extensive and intensive listening. The more time you spend listening to the language, the more familiar the sounds will become. However, time alone is not usually enough for most people. You have to train yourself to focus in on specific features. For instance, let’s say you have begun to notice that the beginnings of words sound a little bit different in certain contexts. As an example, we could think of the word taigh. Right at the start of your learning, you found out that taigh was the Gaelic for ‘house’. Whenever you hear that word in speech, you recognise it, much to your delight. And yet, you keep wondering if that ‘t’ sound at the beginning is turning into something else occasionally. Well, focus in on it. Ask yourself when that change happens. Does it only happen after the definite article (the word for ‘the’)? Does it only happen when certain speakers say it? Play around with the sound yourself: try to copy it. Use it in speech and see if native speakers react. They might tell you if you have copied it wrongly or used it at the wrong time. Or, very excitingly, they might compliment you on your authentic pronunciation.

This is, of course, only one sound in one context. But you would use this principle and gradually build up a more and more complete picture of how the sound system works. Every time you notice a new feature, really take note of it and think about it: consider copying it and trying it out.

Another trick I like to use is sometimes called ‘shadowing’. Many successful language learners use this trick. It requires having access to both the written and audio of a particular text. You read the text to make sure you understand it, and then you listen to it, to get a feel for how the speaker pronounces it. In the third part of the exercise, you read the text out loud along with the speaker, trying to match the sounds and the rhythms. When I do this exercise, I usually focus on quite a short passage – no more than a single paragraph – and I repeat the task several times, trying to sound more and more like the speaker. In this way, I often inadvertently learn the passage off by heart, which is a bonus effect, because those sounds and rhythms then stay with me after I have completed the exercise.

When I teach Gaelic, I often advise students to practise their pronunciation in front of a mirror. This is because speaking is a physical activity and, although most of the action is taking place where you can’t see it, there are nevertheless some little tell-tale signs that do find their way to the surface of the face and the throat. Observe Gaelic speakers and then try to emulate the way they move their mouths etc. whenever you are trying to produce the sounds. This will help you to identify the actual location of sounds within the mouth, but it will also give you a handy warning if you are having a bad hair day!

The previous paragraph has reminded me that the other major thing you can do when trying to improve your pronunciation is to try to become more aware of the physical nature of sound production. Sounds are produced when muscles move. You are (partly) in control of those muscles. Try to become more familiar with how you make sounds and where they occur within your body. Impersonate people and think about how you have changed the way you make sounds in order to sound more like those people. Take a random line of dialogue and say it in Donald Duck’s voice, then say it in Darth Vader’s voice, then say it in Boris Johnson’s voice. Which parts of your mouth vibrate, which parts become warmer, which parts become colder, narrower, wider, etc.? Or, take a Gaelic sound that you already know you find difficult and really, really exaggerate it: hold the sound for an extended period – five seconds, ten seconds… it’s up to you! Struggling with that dh? Go on a dh splurge. Give it twenty seconds of dh. Read out a passage in English but add dh in the gap between each word. Say dh-dh-dh-dh-dh to yourself in front of the mirror. Make your weaknesses your greatest strengths.

Never be afraid of pronunciation again, and absolutely don’t avoid working on it. It may be the single most important thing (along with most of the other things) that you can do to improve your Gaelic. It is also a huge amount of fun to play with. Just make sure you don’t end up like Paul Taylor…

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