Updated: Sep 6, 2020
I think this largely depends where you are based and what life stage you are at, when you start to learn. For example; if you are based in the Highlands of Scotland as a learner, you may feel that you have greater exposure to the language, than if you are based in the south or another country altogether. If, like me, your Gaelic learning journey starts (or started) as a school pupil, you are learning the language because it’s on your timetable and not necessarily because you’re a committed learner.
That all being said, learning Gaelic is hugely rewarding. It’s a minority language that needs learners to survive and by learning it, you’re helping it. It’s also a language steeped deep in a devastating History but one with the most beautiful culture. As a Gaelic speaker, you’ll become accustomed to fighting its corner. You’ll join the thousands of speakers out there already fighting for the language's protection, like a lioness protects her cubs.
Learning Gaelic can be disheartening. I’ll touch on this more later, but the truth is that there is little opportunity to find social situations to speak the language. The Gaelic Heartland is diminishing but we can be hopeful, we must be, that we can revive it. The common negativity in the media can be hugely disheartening too but you’ll become protective of this.
Learning Gaelic can open many doors, both socially and professionally. I’m a learner and other than working in a local restaurant or for my family’s business, I have never had a job where my Gaelic wasn’t compulsory. Learning Gaelic will introduce you to Saoghal na Gàidhlig, the Gaelic World. A world that is small but one that is welcoming and friendly. A world where no matter where you go, you’ll always find a “home”.
As a learner who has now reached fluency, here are some thoughts on what my journey has been like so far. Our learning journeys are never really complete: every day is a school day after all!
Is it hard?
The short answer is yes, it is. But like with any new skill, if you’re prepared to put the hours and effort in, you’ll do just fine.
That being said, Gaelic grammar is really very simple. It’s a fairly regular language with only ten irregular verbs! Sentence structure also generally follows a pattern. Random sentence structure isn’t overly common in the language so once you’ve learnt the rules and you’ve got some vocabulary behind you; it is very simple.
Is it important to learn Gaelic Grammar?
If you want to reach fluency, I would say it is important. As I said above, it is simple, though I know all too well that it doesn’t feel like that when learning it! Some may disagree with me on this, but it helps learners to understand sentence structure and why changes occur in the language. Once you understand the workings of the language, it will be much easier and quicker for you to form the language structures in your head.
I remember distinctly the moment that the language “clicked” for me whilst at University. Without any doubt, it is my foundational understandings of grammar that facilitated that in all areas of the language – writing, listening, reading and speaking.
What happens if I don’t know a word?
That’s fairly simple: use the English. If you’re in conversation with someone, you could ask. But code-switching, that is alternating between two languages in conversation, is common practice and not just in Gaelic!
It should also be noted here that a common theme in anti-Gaelic media is the use of Gaelicisation, where “English” words are adapted to suit the pronunciation or spelling of the Gaelic language. The word ‘helicopter’ is a good example of this, heileacoptar in Gaelic. It’s important to mention here that ‘helicopter’ is an anglicisation of the French word ‘hélicoptère’ which has a Greek background.
I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that it is perfectly normal, and acceptable, to poach and borrow words from other languages. It enables our languages to evolve and remain current.
So, if you don’t know a word, drop in the English, or ask! Don’t shy away from using the language or discussing a certain topic because you don’t have a full and extensive vocabulary yet.
Do I create a Gaelic environment for myself?
This would help. There really is nothing wrong with having Radio nan Gàidheal or BBC Alba on in the background whilst you’re doing other stuff. Cleaning, reading, cooking, driving – though I wouldn’t encourage watching the TV whilst driving!
Hearing Gaelic usage will help you in forming sentence structure, you’ll pick up new words and phrases and it’ll open your ears to different accents and dialects in the language.
Talk to yourself in Gaelic too: some of your most fluent and best conversations will be with yourself in the initial stages! Have you got pets? Speak to them in Gaelic. The language is yours; use it as much as you can!
What is the best dialect to learn?
My thoughts on dialectal learning may not be agreed by all. I don’t personally think it’s useful to learn any specific dialects as a learner. I think it can hinder your learning if you’re aiming to use language that you can’t mirror confidently with another speaker.
That being said, there really is nothing wrong with being aware of different dialectal words or pronunciations and using them, but I wouldn’t suggest that you actively search for a certain dialect. When I was learning, I was fortunate that my tutors highlighted different words or pronunciations of my native dialect. But I didn’t actively search them out when I was initially learning.
Dialectal learning can come later in my opinion. I now have, and do, make conscious decisions to use Skye words and pronunciations. It can come later, and it will.
What’s the hardest thing about learning Gaelic?
Confidence and finding opportunity to practice the language. Confidence will come with practice and with an acceptance that you’ll make mistakes. Once you’re over that, practice will come more fluently.
Opportunity to practice is something else entirely. There are opportunities online now to practice but there isn’t really anything better than being in the same room as someone. My only advice can be to do your research. And possibly to be prepared to travel to enable you to practice.
What resources are useful to learners?
There are a number of resources online to help you learn. There are various social media accounts that you can follow to hear and see the language in daily use. It really isn’t a ‘plug’ when I say that I learnt the foundation of Gaelic grammar through using the Progressive Gaelic series - it was the coursebook that we used in our University language classes. Even now I regularly consult the books to double check the rules for something grammatical or just to put my mind at ease, when I doubt and second-guess myself.
But I would suggest providing yourself access to lots of different resources: apps, podcasts, radio, tv, books, etc. The list is endless and there really has never been so much opportunity to access the language before!
Do I need to attend a course to learn Gaelic?
This largely depends on your individual circumstance and what you want to achieve. To gain complete fluency, providing yourself with the opportunity to actively engage in conversation through a conversational class for example, would greatly assist you with this.
To learn the grammatical rules, you may find it helpful to have these explained to you by someone else, but it isn’t strictly necessary. I have met many Gaelic speakers who have taught themselves the language and they have achieved exceptional levels of fluency in doing so. It’s all down to personal preference.
Returning back to the original question: how does it feel to be someone learning Gaelic? The best way for you to find out is to start learning! There really has never been a better time to start: resources are easier to come by than what was available when my own journey began. There is ample support available on social media from learners all over the world and with the introduction of the Duolingo course, interest and learning of the language has really taken off in the last year.
There is no doubt that you will fall in love with the language and everything that it has to offer. Learning it will open doors to the cultural beauty that Scotland has to offer. As someone learning Gaelic, you will need to push through the confidence barriers and the frustrations that come when learning a new language but once you do, you won’t want to look back.
So, when you ask the question how it feels to be someone learning Gaelic, the answer can really only be answered by yourself when you start learning. But I hope that I have been able to give you a wee insight into what I’ve learnt along the way as a learner. Embrace the journey and you’ll enjoy it.
Tasha Madigan is from Skye, where she began learning Gaelic at school. She got to fluency while studying for a degree at the University of Aberdeen. Having worked in Gaelic development in Lochaber, she returned to Skye, where she has qualified as a teacher via the University of the Highlands and Islands. She begins her career as a Gaelic teacher in August.