• Aoighean

Languages Assemble! Gaelic as a fifth language

Updated: Aug 3

This post was written by Véronique Heynsbroek. Véronique learned Gaelic to fluency at the University of Aberdeen, where she later studied for a Master's degree in Gaelic Folklore. Having furthered her studies in Trier, she has returned to live in Aberdeen. She is now a professional artist, and is once more active in the Gaelic community. She teaches Gaelic and Folklore at the University.

When I was first asked about writing a blog post comparing my experiences of language learning, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I still don’t think that I am but I do want to share some of the observations I have made.

Language learning is a process that can take years and one that is never entirely completed. Although both my grammar and vocabulary are quite extensive in English, which I have spoken for 16 years, I still learn new words or sayings all the time. The same is true with any language, even one’s mother tongue, although with the latter it is always easier to derive meaning from context.


When I learned my first additional language, at school in Luxembourg, I was too young to realise it. It helped that the language was exclusively a spoken language until several years into school. Later, I started learning French around age 7 and I don’t remember much about the initial difficulties. As far as I remember it was mostly learning vocabulary and learning verb forms and tenses off by heart. The first time I struggled with French was in secondary school when we got into the nitty gritty of the grammar and when our tests asked us to use specific tenses or grammatical structures rather than using them naturally.


The first time I actively engaged in learning a language was when I was introduced to English around age 14. Several factors drove my motivation to learn the language:


1. I would finally be able to watch and read “everything” in its original language. (Notice my hubris and misconception?)

2. I would be learning English faster than my brother, showing him once and for all that I wasn’t as stupid as I felt. (Oh, poor misguided youth.)

3. I would be able to add yet another language to my growing number of languages, after a) having been discouraged to learn Latin by my school teachers and b) after having lost interest in Mandarin Chinese as our teacher kept reiterating, in every lesson, that what we learned would never get us anywhere in China. (Stroke the ego!)

Of these factors, only the first persisted, albeit with a little bit of rounding out. I gained another reason when I moved to Aberdeen in order to study English and Scottish Literature.


Before I started university, whilst travelling around Scotland for a week, I noticed something unexpected. There was another language that I could see written on signs, that I had never heard of and knew nothing about. The words seemed mystical to me, unfathomable, especially in terms of their pronunciation. The interest was piqued, and I decided to start learning Gaelic. As I lived in Scotland, I felt that I should learn something about its culture and language.


As soon as I started learning Gaelic there were some key elements that were rather different to my previous language learning approaches. In Luxembourg it is seen as only natural that people speak more than one language: even the commuters from abroad speak at least two, even if they might speak English only reluctantly. But Gaelic was not considered a normal language to learn.


Another difference I noticed was in the grammar. The sentence structure was completely different to any other language I had learned so far and this both intrigued and engaged me. It felt as if I was engaging my brain in a new way, being able to broaden my horizons and ways of thinking. I can’t say whether this was actually true, but as is the case with humans, feelings trump truth.

Thirdly I recognised that learning a language from a foreign language was much harder than I had anticipated. For the first six months of living in Aberdeen I was constantly translating back and forth between English and German (occasionally Luxembourgish depending on whom I was hanging out with) and that posed an added difficulty. Sometimes when the teacher translated the word into English I would be as clueless as before, not knowing what the English meant either. It took me about six months to think and dream in English (much to the chagrin of my parents who found it more difficult to communicate with me as I then had initial difficulties switching back to my mother tongue).

The last hurdle and probably the hardest for me to overcome was the level of available self-immersion. When I learned English, I could suddenly dive into all the book series that I had been reading in English. When my father picked up the 5th volume of Harry Potter in English on the day of its release, I had read it within 24 hours. I did so because I could and also because there was a queue and I had somehow gotten first dibs. To begin with, I read books that I had already read in German. This made it super easy for me to infer the meaning of vocabulary by context. I did this with The Hobbit as well, and various other books.


Another thing I liked to do was to switch the DVDs of my favourite TV shows into English. Depending on what tests I had upcoming, I would also do so as part of my study time. I would watch the episodes in French if I had a French test (or history, biology, maths, etc as they were taught through French in secondary school) and in English if I had an English test.


Both favourite books and TV shows were things that I could not simply pick up when learning Gaelic in order to immerse myself. I found it hard to be interested in young kids' shows and the books I had access to felt overwhelmingly, grammatically, difficult as I had no prior knowledge of the story. This certainly made it more difficult to keep the interest going but I persisted. This was certainly due to the teachers, who were not only interested in Gaelic, but also the students they taught, my fellow students and the encouragement I got from being discouraged. Someone asking me “what is Gaelic even good for?” just made me more determined to pull through.

All in all, I fell in love with the language, its sounds and its folklore (which I wrote my Masters thesis on). Gaelic was not harder than any other language to learn and as an adult I felt that the progress was faster than when I was a young child. Learning vocabulary actively was easier as an adult and even concepts such as grammar were easier to grasp. The thing that made learning Gaelic harder as an adult was the self-consciousness and potential frustration with being unable to remember words.

The last difference between Gaelic and any other language I had learned was that I was now also responsible for keeping it alive and propagating it. This sometimes felt like a burden but most of the time it motivated me to do better and to learn more.


(Next post coming on the 1st of June, at which point we will return to posting once or twice a month, in the hope that lockdown restrictions will start to ease... carefully. Next post is a follow-up to Solvitur Ambulando.)

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