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Improve your listening powers

It's almost time for us to release the second episode of Gàidhlig na Cagailte, so it seemed like the opportune moment to hand out some more advice and ideas about how to get the most out of it. Some of the tips I will give you here would be equally useful for other resources, and you can go ahead and apply them wherever you like.

Make it more active

The first piece of advice I would give you is to try to find ways to make your practice more active. It is always easy to be a little bit lazy and sit back and wait for the language to come to you. In some ways, that will work, but you will likely never develop the speed of response or the confidence to use the language actively if you spend all of your learning time on passive activities. I must confess to being a big fan of passive language learning practices, because I am inherently lazy and undisciplined. However, I know that I would never have managed to get to a high level in so many languages without spending at least a decent chunk of my learning time on some active work.

What is the difference? Well, in the simplest terms, passive learning would include things like watching a programme or a film, listening to music, extensive (as opposed to intensive) reading, listening to a podcast (like Gàidhlig na Cagailte), and anything else that requires minimal investment on your part. Active learning is where you have to engage with the language: it very often involves some kind of production or output, such as speaking, writing, doing exercises, and so on. You can often find ways to incorporate some active work into the use of many of your resources that you would otherwise consider passive. For instance, say you enjoy listening to Gaelic music: that may be one of the pleasures that attracted you to the language in the first place or that has kept you hooked once you were already in. Great, go ahead and spend lots of time passively enjoying your music and you may well notice that you are gradually able to pick out more and more words when people sing. But, how about taking one particular song you like and trying to transcribe the words? If you have listened to it many times already, you may well have a general sense of the structure and sounds of the lyrics. So, make an effort to take each line, one by one, and write it out.

Too difficult?

No problem. Simply look up the lyrics online or contact someone who is likely to have them, such as your Gaelic tutor. Read them out loud and try to get your pronunciation and intonation to sound something like the way the lyrics sound when you hear the song. Learn the words and sing along with your favourite singer. Or learn the first verse to get a feel for how the lyrics work in this song and then try to 'work out' the rest by listening.

The benefit you will get from this exercise is that you will soon start to realise that you can hear Gaelic songs more clearly. The more times you do it, the better you will get at picking out the words in songs that are new to you. Of course, as is always the case with songs, even in your native language, you will sometimes misinterpret lyrics! ‘Lady Mondegreen’, anyone?

If you are a creative type, why not try adding a verse to a song you like? You could have a lot of fun with this: either make it serious or make it funny. Maybe someone will even hear you singing it and start adding it to their own renditions!

One word of caution, though: remember that some popular Gaelic songs are quite old and that the vocabulary they use is not necessarily contemporary. Similarly, in order to fit in with things like rhyme and versification, songs will use words that are not likely to come up in everyday conversation. However, this is not a bad thing, either. You will find that you have a richer vocabulary to call on when you pick up an older book to read. You can even make an active exercise out of this, too. Next time you have a conversation scheduled with a tutor or fluent speaker, you can ask (in Gaelic) about whether they commonly use certain words, and whether those words have the same meanings in everyday speech as they do in the song you were listening to.

How do I make Gàidhlig na Cagailte more active?

So, these were a couple of ideas that might help you if you like using music to improve your Gaelic. But what about more conversational resources, like Gàidhlig na Cagailte? Well, most language learning experts support the idea that it is best to listen to material that you can largely understand. If you find that listening to a whole episode of Gàidhlig na Cagailte is too overwhelming (and that much of it just washes over you), try the following exercise that I recently heard about at a conference.

Get hold of software that will allow you to clip the audio file. There is plenty of free software out there that will let you do that: Audacity is a very powerful example, although you may be a bit intimidated by its features and interface if you aren't technical (then again, if you are completely intimidated by technical things, maybe you should ask someone to help you). Extract one sentence from the file and save it individually. Now, you can either copy and paste it using your software or you can just keep it as a single sentence and set your player to loop it. Read the transcript and make sure you properly understand that sentence (if you can't work it out even after you check the meanings of all the words, ask someone more fluent: it could be an idiom). Now that you have isolated a single sentence and made sure you understand it properly, you are going to play it over and over until you are sure you can hear all of it clearly. You may need to play it ten or twenty times in a day before you move on to the next sentence. Work your way through a substantial section of the conversation like this – say, a ten-minute chunk. Then, when you are sure you can hear each sentence individually very clearly, try listening to the full extract. Once you can hear the whole extract clearly, repeat the process with the second part of the conversation. By the time you have done this for one of the episodes of Gàidhlig na Cagailte, you will discover that your listening powers have already improved so much that the second episode should come to you more easily. But, any time you are having trouble, go back and use this process again.

Of course, this technique takes a long time to use and requires a significant commitment. But, you are already committed to learning the language, aren’t you? Give this a few weeks and then let us know how you notice your listening skills improving.

Once you have done the single-sentence exercise with a whole episode, you can then turn that episode back into a more passive listening resource: pop it on when you are otherwise engaged, washing dishes, cutting grass, jogging, etc. It’s fun being able to understand the whole conversation now, isn’t it?

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