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How hard is it to learn Gaelic?

This is definitely one of the most common questions people ask. Unfortunately, it is also impossible to give a satisfactory answer, although I can suggest some things that will help you gauge it for yourself. The first thing to bear in mind is that learning any language is a major undertaking. Just like learning astrophysics, learning how to play the violin, learning to paint, learning electronic engineering, etc., learning a language is potentially a very long-term and engaging commitment. The second thing to bear in mind before we get into specifics is that there is no actual end-point: there is no moment where you will stand back and admire your achievement and say to yourself “Aha! Now I have successfully learnt Gaelic! Now I can stop.” With these two things in mind, you can imagine that learning Gaelic is both extremely hard and yet also extremely easy. Since there is never a final destination, you could argue that it is (sort of) impossible. And yet, at the same time, it is also incredibly easy to learn some Gaelic: you can learn some Gaelic in five minutes. And, if you have ten minutes, you can even learn some more!

At this point, people may say:

“Yes, but how hard is it to learn enough Gaelic to have a conversation?”

My answer here is still one of my infuriating “it depends” answers. The problem here is that every conversation is different. You could learn enough Gaelic in five minutes to have a conversation. You could definitely learn enough in half an hour to have a conversation, depending on what that conversation happens to involve. However, if you want to be able to get to the point where you can converse naturally, easily and spontaneously on a wide range of topics (which is what people usually mean when they say “enough to have a conversation”), the answer is that it is very hard indeed. The reality is that natural conversation involves a huge range of potential vocabulary and idiomatic expression. While you can easily learn enough vocabulary to express most of what you want to say, you cannot easily learn enough to understand all of what a fluent speaker may say to you.

Imagine learning Gaelic as being a process a bit like building a house. Building a house is a very long, exacting and difficult process. However, laying one brick on top of other bricks is not particularly hard. If you focus on laying one brick at a time, you shouldn’t get too intimidated by the enormity of having a whole house to build. If I said to you that you will need a vocabulary of 20,000 words before you can expect to have those natural, easy and spontaneous conversations on a wide range of topics, you would probably be intimidated and possibly even put off entirely. However, learning one word is easy. Anyone can learn a word.

In the language-learning community, there is a well-known axiom that 80% of the words we use in conversation come from a very small pool of vocabulary: around 500-600 words. Some people even suggest numbers higher than 80%. This certainly seems to make sense when we look at transcriptions of conversations. Learning 500 words doesn’t sound too hard, does it? In fact, most people can manage to do that in anything from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Sadly, though, very few conversations consist exclusively of those 500-600 words. And, in fluent conversation, failing to understand even one or two key words can be enough to throw you off completely – especially when you are not an experienced language learner. Many idioms are made up of simple, everyday words, but it is impossible to guess what the idioms mean just by knowing the individual words. More importantly, even in a situation where you are familiar with all of the words uttered, it can be difficult to hear them; it can take a lot of practice to get to the point where you hear, recognise and process all of the words a fluent speaker says.

And this is just the vocabulary. Languages are not just vocabulary. Imagine that house we were building earlier. If we just lay the bricks on top of other bricks, we aren’t going to build much of a house. We also need structure.

If we think about the individual elements of learning Gaelic, nothing is really all that difficult. Some people will find some of those elements tricky for a while and will find other elements really straightforward. There is no way to predict which elements will cause a particular person trouble, either. The crucial thing is to have patience and self-belief, because there are no elements in language-learning that are impossible to master: after all, people of all kinds of backgrounds and levels of intelligence have already managed to learn the language before you.

“But is Gaelic a hard language to learn?”

People often realise that everything I have said here applies to learning any and all languages, and so they then want to know how hard it is to learn Gaelic in comparison with learning other languages. There is a lot more detail on this in the post “How long does it take to learn Gaelic?”, but here are some brief comments that go some way towards answering it.

As an adult, I learned Gaelic and many other languages. In general, I had more difficulty with Gaelic than I did with French and less difficulty with Gaelic than I did with Chinese. However, this was only true in general: many specific aspects of French were a lot harder to learn than their equivalents in Gaelic, and many specific aspects of Chinese were a lot easier to learn than their equivalents in Gaelic. Take verbs, for instance. French has several tenses and inflects for person and number; Chinese has no tenses and no verb inflection of any kind. Gaelic lies somewhere between the two. Gaelic has three tenses and a tiny amount of verb inflection to learn. Similarly, French has dozens and dozens of irregular verbs that don’t follow the patterns you learn off by heart, whereas Chinese has no irregular verbs. Again, Gaelic falls between the two, having only about a dozen irregular verbs. Both French and Gaelic use essentially the same alphabet that English uses, whereas Chinese writing is based on characters, all of which have to be memorised separately (people say that you might need to learn anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 characters to be regarded as a fluent reader of Chinese!). On the other hand, pronunciation is quite hard to master in all three of these languages, whereas I found it comparatively much more straightforward in languages like Spanish, Welsh and German (note: this is what I found and not necessarily how it will feel for you – we all have sounds we, as individuals, find easier and harder to emulate). Of the three languages I am comparing here, Gaelic probably has the largest number of different phonemes (language sounds), but Chinese has the added complication of tones and French has the added complication of a spelling system and a sound system that have diverged quite far from each other (there are many silent or almost-silent letters and letter combinations in French, so that being able to read the language and being able to speak it are two very different things!). In contrast, being able to read Gaelic really helps you with learning to speak the language, since the written form is much closer to the spoken form than is the case with many other languages.

"How...easy... is it to learn Gaelic?"

We probably started out with the wrong question here, then. Rather than thinking about how hard it is to learn Gaelic, let’s focus instead on how easy it is. There are many aspects to learning Gaelic that are actually extraordinarily easy. First of all, any Gaelic speaker you meet will almost definitely be able to speak English: so, there is no stress for you if you get stuck in conversation (obviously, there are potential down sides here, which we will be exploring in another post); secondly, you already know the alphabet, so you just have to learn how the letters relate to the different sounds you are learning; thirdly, Gaelic suddenly has a lot more resources available to support learners than ever before (have you seen our Glossika resource?); fourthly, a lot of Gaelic speakers will be very excited when they find out you are learning the language, and they will go out of their way to help you; fifthly, there are certain conversation topics you will not need to learn, in the way that you would need to learn them if you were doing a national language like French instead; sixthly (I should have thought this list through before starting out with the ordinal numbers!), there is a lot of great content out there, from songs to poetry to literature, which should keep you motivated for years and years to come; seventhly (see what I mean?), the spelling system is ridiculously straightforward and easy to remember; eighthly (is that even a thing?), the grammar is generally not too tricky: verb tenses are much simpler than French, and noun cases are much simpler than German (and don't even get me started on Slavic languages or Finnish here!). So, go to it, knowing that it can be done!

How easy is it to learn Gaelic? If you give it a bit of time and effort every day, you will gradually and progressively find it easier and easier. The crucial things to bear in mind are:

1. You have to be motivated enough (you really have to want to learn)

2. You have to dedicate enough time (no less than 30 minutes, more or less every day)

3. You have to select methods and resources that suit you (never mind what someone else tells you – different people respond to different methods and resources)

4. You have to have the patience to stick with it over months and, ultimately, years

5. You have to be prepared to try different approaches as time goes by (what helped you when you were a beginner will definitely not be much use to you when you are an intermediate; and, when you are advanced, you will have to keep finding new and different things to challenge you)

6. You will almost definitely need help (teachers, mentors, friends, resources, etc.)

7. Hurry slowly: work progressively and methodically, but also go as fast as you can handle (the sooner you build a framework around which to construct your house, the better)

In the end, don’t worry too much about how hard it is. If you really want to learn it, just give it time and attention, and choose methods that work for you. Like any other skill, do it progressively and you will steadily get there.

(Next time: how to get to a conversational level in Gaelic)

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Alex Thirkell
Alex Thirkell
Nov 29, 2023

Interesting article, thanks. I've just begun learning Gaelic, and so far so good, but I'm finding the spelling and pronunciation system very tricky. I know it'll gradually get easier, but I'm still tripping up on 'th', 'h', 'v' and other sounds that seem to pop up unexpectedly in Gaelic speakers' speech. I'm a Scot who never learned any as a bairn so I'm definitely motivated to keep putting those bricks on top of each other!


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