Many people throw around the advice “learn Gaelic the way you learned English” without really thinking through the full implications of this or without properly recalling how they learned English. As with most of the other myths, there is, of course, an element of truth in it, which we will explore towards the end of the post. But, for now, let’s think about why this advice is silly.
The idea of learning Gaelic the way you learned English is often linked with another persistent myth: that children learn languages more easily, more quickly and altogether better than adults. If this were true, it would stand to reason that they must have a better method, wouldn’t it?
Well, no. For one thing, it is not true and, for another, you are not a child and you are not likely to become one again, so you are not going to emulate a child’s language-learning method, even if you try. We may investigate the myth of children as more effective language learners in another one of these posts: again, there is an element of truth in it, mixed in with a lot of nonsense. But, for now, even if we thought it was true, there is no way to put yourself into the same situation as a child learning a language for the first time. You can’t disassociate concepts from pre-existing language structures and create new, direct links with your second language, as we already discussed in the “Things you will hear about learning Gaelic” post. Instead, as an adult, learning a language is a process of building new, additional links between language and concepts and about enriching your way of seeing the world. It would be truly ridiculous to try to disconnect your adult view of the world for five or six years in your quest to learn a second language, and you wouldn’t actually want to do that anyway. Besides, children learn by means of massive exposure to a language (as well as through genuine necessity). They are literally surrounded by their language all day, every day, with people speaking at them, around them, near them non-stop while they are awake and while they sleep. Unless you can persuade a Gaelic family to adopt you and replicate this environment (and accept that you will not utter a word for two years, then not speak in sentences for another year, and not speak in sophisticated adult structures for another eight to ten), then you are not going to learn Gaelic the way you learned English.
“But, can’t I learn by immersion?”
Well, yes and no. Immersion opportunities are just not the same for adults as they are for children. Unless you are extremely fortunate and actually manage to find that Gaelic family who will adopt you, you aren’t going to spend years in an immersion environment where you will encounter all of the situations someone would encounter while growing up. You won’t hear the vocabulary, and all the variants and slang versions and truncated versions etc., used in the same situations, day in, day out. So, your immersion experience will inevitably be weaker and less rich than the immersion experience you had when you learned English. If you find an immersion course that gives you even a few hundred hours of exposure to the language, that will be a great and useful, rewarding experience, but it won’t replicate what you had when you were learning English: a few hundred hours would have got you through your first three or four weeks of life. I would suggest that you almost certainly need to have some time with what we might call immersion, but it might be a good idea to think strategically about when is the best time to do that, since you are unlikely to be able to stack up many, many thousands of hours of it. Don’t forget how long it took you to learn English. Immersion is a powerful but incredibly slow way to learn.
I can give an example of strategic thinking about how to use immersion, but it will not necessarily be an example that will be relevant to you, since your goals may be different from mine. I once did a degree in French, taught entirely through the medium of French and using only French materials. If I had been a beginner when I started that degree, I would have made no progress; instead, I made sure my language level was fairly respectable (around B1) before I started, which allowed me to get to C2 by the end.
“Wait. Didn’t you say there was some truth in the advice?”
There is, indeed. Remember the line: “children learn by means of massive exposure to the language”? And, so they do. You are only going to learn Gaelic (or improve your Gaelic, or truly master Gaelic) if you take in a massive amount of the language. As a child, you would be in an advantageous position here, because you would have access to adults who would be speaking the language at you constantly (then other children as you carried on growing up). So, take this idea of massive exposure to Gaelic as your starting point and do everything you can to ensure that you can take in the greatest possible amount of Gaelic. However, you are not going to be able to do it in the same way a child would, and you really don’t want to do it in the same way, anyway. Do it in the manner that makes the most sense for you, and that you enjoy the most. Always remember that learning Gaelic should be an enjoyable experience that you tailor to your own goals: following a specific method just because someone else has given it a rave review is generally a recipe for disappointment.
“But, how do I get lots of Gaelic exposure?”
It’s entirely up to you and it depends on what you like and what you hope to achieve. Get access to as much Gaelic audio (or audio-visual) material as you can and listen, listen, listen. The more times you listen to Gaelic you can (mostly) understand, the more the language will feel familiar to you. In order to improve your ability to understand that audio in the first place, you are going to need either a fluent friend or a transcript. By pre-reading, you will have a chance to work out (or look up) vocabulary that you don’t understand. And, of course, simply doing a huge amount of reading will also expose you to a huge amount of the language and lots of new vocabulary and ways to express things.
So, the thing you should take away from the advice about learning Gaelic the way you learned English is that you should learn by getting as much input as possible. But, the manner in which you receive that input is necessarily going to be considerably different when you are an adult, and this is a good thing that you should embrace: you can watch TV that you enjoy, listen to music that you enjoy, read stories or history that you enjoy, and engage in conversations about things that are meaningful to you.