In a word, forever. And it doesn’t matter if you are starting out as an adult, a teenager, a child or an infant: learning any language is a lifelong process. Even if you grow up completely surrounded by a language and immersed in that language and only that language, you will never learn everything there is to know about it. Ideally, we would stop talking about native speakers and learners of Gaelic and talk instead about those who have been learning it since early childhood and those who started later on in their lives.
But that wasn’t what you meant when you asked the question. You were looking for numbers and duration, etc., so let’s get into all of that.
What is your goal?
The answer really depends on a number of factors. The main ones are:
· It depends on what we mean by ‘learn Gaelic’
· It depends on how motivated you are
· It depends on how much time you are willing to spend
· It depends on how much attention you give to the language
· It depends on how experienced you are at language learning (or, if not experienced, talent also helps)
· It depends on what access you have to useful resources (like books, media, fluent speakers, etc.)
First of all, what do we mean by ‘learn Gaelic’? If we mean ‘learn enough Gaelic to stumble through a basic and stilted conversation that never varies from what we have always talked about in Gaelic’, then the time taken should be relatively short. If we mean ‘learn enough Gaelic to be able to conduct our entire life through the medium of the language, including being able to use it as the main language of a profession or career’, then the time taken is likely to be much longer. If we assume that you are very motivated (you absolutely need to learn the language for work or because of an important family connection or because it is a precious part of your significant other’s life or because your children are going to attend GME), then you should be able to learn much more quickly than if you just felt like giving it a go: learning a language on a whim is rarely something that you can achieve quickly or successfully. If you are able to dedicate an hour or more every single day, you will learn far more quickly than someone who can only work on learning the language once or twice a week. If you know how to learn actively, you will learn far more quickly than someone who expects to learn passively (i.e. someone who expects a course/book/tutor to somehow give them the language). If you have managed to learn two or three other languages to fluency, you will learn Gaelic significantly more quickly than you would if it was your first time trying to learn a language. And if you can find resources that suit you, as well as plenty of fluent speakers to interact with, you will also be able to learn the language much more quickly.
Length of time for English-speakers to learn languages
The American diplomatic training service (the FSI) famously made a list of some of the national languages and categorised them according to how long it typically took a native speaker of English to learn them as an adult. Since this learning was assumed to be targeted at careers in the diplomatic service, we normally assume that the FSI was assessing how long it took English speakers to reach at least C1 levels in the four competences in each language (we will have a post on the CEFR and language levels later this year). For our purposes, C1 would mean ‘a proficient user of the language’: someone who is comfortably fluent and able to speak in detail, expressively, on a wide range of topics, with no prior preparation.
According to the FSI’s list, the languages most similar to English can usually be acquired the most quickly, and those languages that are most different (including cultural differences) usually take the longest to learn (this is not because they are objectively more difficult, but simply because the degree of difference has a direct effect on how long they take to learn). Depending on the source you check, the languages are divided into either four or five categories. Category 1 languages are those that can be mastered the most quickly. These usually include Scandinavian languages and most, or all, of the Romance languages (with French and Spanish generally being identified as the quickest of these). The FSI found that these Category 1 languages usually take a dedicated learner around 600 hours of active learning time to master. We might guess that there would also be hundreds, or even thousands, of hours of passive learning going on as well, but the key figure is the active learning. The FSI suggest that 600 hours could equate to around six months; however, this would be equivalent to almost 25 hours of classes or active learning per week. Most people don’t have 25 hours available every week to dedicate to their language learning. So, if you have 12.5 hours a week to dedicate (really dedicate) to your learning, it could take a year to get good at a Category 1 language. If you have only 6.25 hours available to study per week, you would be looking at almost two years, etc. Half an hour a day would give you about 3.5 hours of study each week, which means you could learn a Category 1 language (from beginner to C1) in around three to four years. Bear in mind that the FSI was looking at highly motivated, educated and talented professionals, who absolutely needed to master languages for the sake of their careers. So these numbers should probably be thought of as minimums rather than typical timeframes.
By contrast, the most remote languages (in terms of structure, vocabulary and cultural concepts), such as Chinese (all Chinese languages), Japanese and Arabic would take more than 2000 hours of active learning to master. In other words, they take a little more than three times the typical amount of time as learning a Category 1 language. So, if you spent 25 hours per week on your Chinese, you might get good at it within 18-24 months. If you spent 3.5 hours per week on it, you could expect it to take you twelve years or more.
So, where does Gaelic fit in?
In between the two extremes, we have the rest of the world’s languages, including Gaelic. The FSI never assessed the difficulty of learning Gaelic, as they were only interested in training diplomats in national languages. Based on my own language learning (which has included languages in all of the FSI's categories), I would say that Gaelic falls somewhere between Categories 2 and 3 (900-1100 hours of active learning). In purely linguistic terms (but being subjective about it: it’s just my guess), it seems to me that Gaelic is approximately as remote from English as German (normally classed as a Category 2 language: 900 active learning hours to C1). Despite the jokes ignorant monoglots make about words like ‘helicopter’ and ‘tomato’ (etc.), one of the things you will quickly notice when you start learning Gaelic is that there is a dishearteningly small pool of shared vocabulary between English and Gaelic. This is a dramatic contrast if you have already learnt Spanish or French, where your knowledge of English furnishes you with thousands of cognate words before you even start. As you learn more Gaelic, you will also notice that there are not as many shared idioms between English and Gaelic as there would be between English and these more closely-related languages. For instance, we can say: “pas ma tasse de thé” in French, which is exactly the same as “not my cup of tea”. Or, “gagner des cacahuètes”, which literally means “earn peanuts” (we usually say “work for peanuts” in English). But if you were to try to translate either of these literally to Gaelic, you would cause a few raised eyebrows. You will also find a few elements of the Gaelic structure that are quite unfamiliar (for instance, where English and French both like to have the subject of a sentence and then the verb and then the other bits, Gaelic starts with the verb: this takes most people a little while to get used to).
Getting hold of tools... and why that matters
If you wanted to learn German (usually described as a Category 2 language), it would be extremely easy for you to get hold of resources. You could try out several different kinds of course book or app or online course. You could sign up for a diploma or join the online Goethe Institut course. Depending on where you live, it is likely that you could even find either formal or informal face-to-face teaching options near you. You could certainly book a language holiday, either at a language school or simply by going to live in one of the Germanophone countries for a while. You could easily find Skype tutors or join a community like Tandem, where you might meet language exchange partners. If you have Netflix, you would be able to use the Language Learning with Netflix extension in your Chrome browser to learn by watching TV series and films. By finding the method that works best for you (or, for most people, the combination of methods), you could reasonably expect to go from beginner to proficient within 900 hours of active learning. Of course, you would still have a lot more to learn, but you would already be a fluent and confident user of German by then, so could carry on learning at your leisure, in no particular hurry, enjoying the process, reading your German novels and watching your German films.
The contrast with Gaelic is fairly stark, although, happily, the position is improving year on year. No, there is still no way to use Netflix or find language exchange partners on Tandem. But, a lot of the other things are available now, where they weren’t even just a few short years ago. This is thanks to the great efforts being made by many people across the Gaelic community, such as the Gaelic Books Council, Stòrlann, Comunn na Gàidhlig, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Rèidio nan Gàidheal, MG Alba, Acair, Sandstone Press, LearnGaelic, SMO, the university Gaelic departments (Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh), and many, many individuals who have worked tirelessly to fill in the gaps in resources that used to make it so difficult to learn Gaelic (apologies to the many important contributors who have been missed out from this list: contact info @ progressive gaelic dot com to have the list improved).
For this reason, some of the time you would normally dedicate to active learning will actually be spent on looking for and adapting resources. A very good focal point for resources is the LearnGaelic website, which is growing constantly, but be prepared to cast a wide net in the search for materials that can help you learn and improve. Be cautious with online resources and, in particular, with both Google Translate and Amazon. Google Translate is much less reliable for Gaelic than it is for the biggest national languages (because it relies on large numbers of web pages, which really don’t exist for Gaelic). Amazon carries many good resources, but there are also some extremely bad ones on there, uploaded by unscrupulous people trying to scam you: some of them claim to be Gaelic, but really aren’t. We will discuss resources in more detail in another post, though.
Let’s get back to thinking about the time it takes to learn Gaelic. Due to the difficulty you may have in finding resources that suit you, and the much more pressing difficulty in finding opportunities to practise Gaelic (you can’t just move to a Gaelic-speaking city and get a Gaelic-speaking supermarket job for six months, etc.), I would suggest that this pushes Gaelic closer to the level of a Category 3 language in terms of the time it takes an English speaker to learn it. If it normally takes about 900 hours of active learning to master a Category 2 and about 1100 hours of active learning to master a Category 3, we might estimate that it could take you around 1000 hours of active learning to master Gaelic (say, five years at half an hour a day). Notice, though, that I am using the word ‘master’. The time it takes you to learn Gaelic will also depend on what you mean by ‘learn’. When we start as a complete beginner of a language, even learning a couple of hundred words feels like a huge victory (2-3 weeks), because we suddenly have a lot of access to a language we used to have no access to at all (this is where apps like Duolingo can seem so helpful at first). By the time we get to A2 level (3-6 months), we can struggle our way through conversations, read parts of simple texts, etc. When we get to B1 (4-12 months), we can hold conversations (with some effort), read substantial amounts of texts, and even write relatively meaningful texts. By B2 (6-24 months), we are effective users of the language, and will sound completely fluent to someone who doesn't know the language.
If you fall in love with the language, as so many people do, you will never want to stop learning it, and that’s a good thing, too. If you truly want to master Gaelic, it will take at least two and a half years of you spending a full hour every day, working on it actively, or at least five years of you spending half an hour a day on active learning. It will take you longer if you try to concentrate your learning into two two-hour blocks instead of spreading it throughout the week.
So, when you ask how long it takes to learn Gaelic, the answer largely depends on what your goal is. Spend half an hour on it today, and you will be half an hour closer to whatever goal you have set for yourself.
(Next week: Solvitur Ambulando, by Gregor Addison; next post from Progressive Gaelic: Getting conversational theme by theme)