How do you get to a conversational level in Gaelic?

Updated: Aug 22


Let’s think about this question in two ways. First, let’s think about how it applies to you if you are taking part in some kind of Gaelic course, either with teachers or mentors or some other support. Then, let’s think about it from the perspective of those of you who are learning on your own. (Note that the blog contains affiliate links, and I earn from qualifying purchases: but I never promote any services or products unless I genuinely consider them worthwhile.)



If you are learning in a structured course, you will almost definitely already be having conversations. The thing to bear in mind about all structured courses – no matter who has designed them and no matter who is teaching them – is that they are controlled environments. Your teacher/mentor is probably a fluent speaker, but he/she is aware of what bits of Gaelic you already know. He/she, either deliberately or automatically, is carefully controlling the conversations to make sure that you remain in a situation you can cope with – or, if your teacher/mentor is experienced, he/she is gradually pushing you out of your comfort zone, but is doing so in a way that doesn’t make you panic too much at any point. The conversations you are having in your course are therefore not natural, free-flowing conversations, no matter how unscripted they appear to be. Your tutor/mentor is finding ways to keep the conversations structured and predictable. This is why, regardless of the method you are following, a real conversation outside of the controlled environment is not going to go quite how you expect it to (is anyone else hearing a jaded Luke Skywalker's voice growling in the background right now?).


"this is not going to go the way you think..."


Depending on the kind of course you are following, this can be more or less extreme: if your course relies heavily on scripted phrases and never makes much effort to give you the structures to produce language independently, the conversations you are having will be very environmentally-controlled; in courses that are more inclined towards teaching you general structures, the conversations will often seem rather unnatural and you will tend to feel like you are not learning to say the things you want to say. In either case, be prepared for conversation outside of your course to seem much more difficult.


Conversations can be difficult or awkward at first... get used to it


For example, if your course teaches you how to introduce yourself and talk about your interests, background, family, work, etc., you may quickly become quite comfortable talking about these things. Then, you bump into a native speaker and decide to try out your Gaelic. This speaker knows nothing about your course and asks you your opinion about the latest news story, politics, the environment, etc. and you immediately feel completely lost. Are you bad at Gaelic? No: you just haven’t done this stuff yet.


Second example: your course is based on the language of the home, cooking, disciplining children and playing games, etc. Your child comes home from Gaelic Medium Education and asks for help with his/her maths homework. Suddenly, you realise that you don’t know any of the vocabulary or concepts and that you can’t really read enough Gaelic to be able to engage in this conversation. Are you bad at Gaelic? No: you just haven't done this stuff yet.


Third example: your course is rather academic and you have spent a lot of time learning to read and write. You can pick your way through a novel if you use a dictionary and you feel confident enough to send the occasional email in Gaelic to your friends. You go along to a pop-up Gàidhealtachd and meet some Gaelic-speakers. The conversation ranges from introductions to chat about sports and Coinneach Mòr’s programme from that morning. You find it difficult to follow the conversation, even though you know all of these structures and most of the vocabulary. You discover that you can’t put sentences together fast enough to contribute, even though you would know how to do it if you had the time. Are you bad at Gaelic? No: you just haven’t done this stuff yet.


What about learning on your own?


If you are learning on your own, you may subscribe to the school of thought that you should start conversing as soon as you start learning the language; or, you may prefer to build a strong understanding of the language, the sound system, the structures and the vocabulary before you start talking to people. Contrary to what you may hear, both approaches work very well. The great benefit to learning on your own is that you can start applying the principles I am going to list at the end of this post much more quickly than you can if you are following a course. Admittedly, even if you are doing a course, you could start using these principles at any point, but most of you will probably feel that you are already dedicating enough time to your course as it is and that you don’t have much free time for additional Gaelic learning. If that is the case, don’t worry: this advice will still be here for you when you are ready for it.


No matter whether you are learning in a structured course or on your own, take some time to think about what you: (a) would like to be able to say in Gaelic and (b) keep finding that you really need to be able to say. Focus your learning on the things that you want to be able to say right now and the things that you keep needing to be able to say. Most courses will force you to learn certain things in a certain order (and there are good reasons for this, no doubt). But this means you will often be learning to say things that are not much use to you in the conversations that you have. In the post about getting conversational theme by theme, we will go into this in more detail, but, in short: don't try to master conversation in the entire language; instead, try to master one topic at a time. Get really confident at talking about the things you are most likely to want to talk about, and then move on.


Get good at conversing by getting good at listening



An absolutely excellent resource I have used for several languages is Glossika. It helps you to tune in to the speed, rhythm and timing of natural language. Glossika uses two main methods: sentence mining and spaced repetition. Even if you were not going to use Glossika itself, I highly recommend learning how to use both of these methods in your language learning approach. I may write a post explaining each of them in more detail later, but for now, the brief explanation is:


- sentence mining lets you find vocabulary and structures from complete sentences;

- spaced repetition helps you learn vocabulary (including phrases) by exposing you to the same vocabulary at intervals designed to embed them into your long-term memory


The Gaelic version of Glossika is free to use (provided for you by the Progressive Gaelic team), so you should definitely give it a try if you are at the stage where you are thinking about having more conversations. It will help you speed up your recognition of words and phrases in Gaelic, and it will help train you in the ways in which Gaelic expresses things. Every time I have used Glossika to learn a language, I have noticed huge, rapid improvements in both my listening and my speaking skills.


If you are learning on your own, without a course or classmates, don't worry. In fact, I think it may be even more effective than learning as part of a class (although it is much less social at first!). I learned German on my own and had to take responsibility for structuring my own learning. At first, I attended an evening course, but, although I enjoyed the social aspects of that and appreciated the help of the very good teachers, I found the pace much too slow for my liking. As soon as I started to study under my own steam, I progressed ten times faster. I concentrated on learning to read at that point, and I spent a bit of time filling in gaps in my grammar knowledge. After a few months, I had built up enough vocabulary (5000-10,000 words) to be able to read articles, etc. and to pick my way through novels slowly. I found some tutors on italki and arranged to have regular conversations. There are actually a few Gaelic tutors on italki, so you may like to look them up. You can also find other online tutors on similar sites to italki, who will teach you via platforms like Skype, Facetime, Hangouts, etc. The online tutor we recommend has a website here.


Using italki regularly, here are some lessons I learned about getting good at speaking a language quickly:


1. By having conversations with several different people, you can practise the same kinds of topics over and over again, gradually getting better at them (and, when I did it, each conversation seemed natural and new, because the other person hadn’t had that conversation with me)

2. By having conversations with several different people, you have to be prepared for surprises, as different people tend to take conversations off in very different directions

3. It is a good idea to concentrate on themes/topics/areas of vocabulary, one by one (see the post: getting conversational theme by theme)

4. It is a good idea to prepare some vocabulary, some phrases, some things to say beforehand (even if you never end up using them in that conversation, you feel a bit more confident knowing that they are there)

5. It is very helpful to review the tutor’s notes afterwards

6. A great way to learn the new vocabulary a tutor gives you is to make a point of using it in your next conversation with a different tutor

7. Focus mostly on saying the things you know how to say correctly, but try out one new thing in each conversation (that way, you will quickly discover whether you have got this new thing right or not)

8. You will make lots of mistakes and this is absolutely normal (instead of trying to avoid making mistakes, try to keep pushing yourself to say more – the more practice you get, the more infrequent and minor your mistakes will gradually become)

9. Oddly, you will be (not just feel but actually be) more fluent when you talk to some people than you are when you talk to other people: this is totally normal and unavoidable – you will eventually get to the stage where you are so comfortable with the language that this either disappears or you no longer notice it

10. Even if you feel quite fluent today, that doesn't necessarily mean you will be more fluent (or even as fluent) tomorrow; fluency is, ironically, fluid: it changes constantly and unpredictably


Finally, you get good at conversing when you feel confident. Confidence will come from different things for different people. For most people, though, it will come from having at least a decent sense of the structures of the language and from knowing a wide range of vocabulary. The more words you know, the better you will understand what people say to you; the more you understand, the more it will feel like a conversation.


Good luck, and remember to enjoy it!


(Next time: guest blog, in Gaelic, by Gregor Addison, on his relationship with the language; then, the following post will be: how long does it take to learn Gaelic?)

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