I can’t [delete the ones that don’t apply] speak/read/write/understand Gaelic, and therefore my Gaelic is worthless
This is a persistent myth in the Gaelic world, and it is a real shame that it still exists despite good efforts that many people have made over the years to get rid of it. One of the reasons it still continues is that there are certain people who want to promote their own vision of what Gaelic is all about, or what the language is for. When the census added a question about people’s ability to understand Gaelic, I felt that this was a positive step, because we need to recognise that everyone who has any of the four competences is part of this community. There is a tendency to valorise either speaking competence or academic reading/writing competence, depending on the background or agenda of the person making the argument at the time. On the one hand, people will say that only fluent speakers can pass on the language to the next generation; on the other hand, people will say that the ability to read and write makes you significantly more employable, and that employment prospects make the language more attractive and, generally, more useful to have. I hope that you can see that both arguments are partly correct.
At the same time, we need to recognise that the ability to understand either spoken or written Gaelic is also a very good thing. Yes, it can be frustrating to have what is sometimes called a ‘passive’ ability with a language. However, a passive ability is still an ability, and it is more than what most other people have. It gives you access to the tremendous cultural store of an ancient language that continues to punch above its weight in literary and heritage terms, and it also gives you a membership of a small but vibrant community. As a fluent listener of Gaelic, you can certainly take part in conversations if you choose to, without the other speakers feeling like they need to switch to English for your benefit. You might remind the group that, although you will respond in English, you would appreciate it if they carried on speaking Gaelic. As a fluent reader, you can access the literature, poetry and song tradition, or you might be able to understand current functional or professional documents: you could thus be a real asset in a workplace that is trying to implement a Gaelic Plan. You might even be so good at reading that you are actually capable of being a (Gaelic to English) translator, even though you would never attempt to write or speak Gaelic.
What if you have one of these passive abilities and would like to acquire the productive competence(s) of speaking and/or writing? Many people have the sense that being able to understand the spoken language even puts them in a worse position than someone who is learning Gaelic from scratch. I have often encountered people who say that they have no idea where to start with ‘learning’ the language since they are already able to understand conversation but can barely put a sentence together when they try to talk. Actually, these people are very lucky, because learning to understand spoken Gaelic is really very difficult: this group of people has already mastered one of the trickier parts of the job. If they are able to follow fluent conversation, they have a ‘head full’ of Gaelic (as we might say in Gaelic!). The only problem is that they haven’t ever had to produce it. They definitely have some grasp of the basic underlying structures, and they clearly recognise a huge pool of vocabulary. This raises some questions, then. Firstly, should this group be ashamed of their inability to produce Gaelic actively? No, of course not. They have an advanced ability with the language and they can use that if they wish. Secondly, if this group wanted to improve their ability to speak, should they start with a beginners’ course? Well, they could do that, but it might not be the best option. Instead, they should probably try to put themselves in a situation where they are challenged to start speaking Gaelic immediately. Most people in this group are people who grew up with Gaelic all around them, so the likelihood is that they have access to a lot of fluent speakers. They could try to recruit one or more of their friends or family to help them, by asking them to interact only in Gaelic, saying something like “Please only respond to things I say if I say them in Gaelic.” It is not easy to set this kind of thing up, especially with people who they have always spoken another language with; however, it does work.
What about the second group: those who can read Gaelic only? Again, these people are in a fortunate position. There is a wealth of material that they could be enjoying reading, and they would also happily understand signs, instructions, and so on if they were to visit a Gàidhealtachd area. But what if they decide that they would like to be able to develop their other competences in the language? Well, their ability to read the language means that they have a strong grasp of the underlying structures and that they can recognise a huge pool of vocabulary, so they are already in a good position to get started with the other competences. In fact, this is exactly how I went about learning several of the languages that I know: I taught myself to read them first, acquired a massive vocabulary via reading, and then I ‘converted’ that ability into the other competences. We could ask again whether this group should be ashamed of the limitations of their abilities and the answer is, of course, again no. In fact, the ability to read any language is a fantastic thing that our ancestors would have regarded as something approaching a superpower. Secondly, if this group wanted to acquire the other competences of speaking, writing and listening, should they start from scratch with a beginners’ course? Again, probably not. Instead, they might want to jump straight in with an intermediate course that has a strong focus on the productive competences. At the same time, they should start doing a lot of listening. Since they are able to read fluently, they can do simultaneous reading and listening, which will help them tune their ear in quickly.
Is it possible to have one of the productive competences without having the equivalent passive competence? Yes, it is, to some extent. I doubt that there are many people who can write a language without also being able to read it at all (although this used to be a profession in medieval times!), but there are certainly people who have a more ‘fluid’ speaking ability in Gaelic than the level of their listening skill would suggest. These tend to be people who have learnt Gaelic by certain faddish methods that emphasise drills or repetition without allowing the student to communicate more freely. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either drills or repetition, but we do encounter people sometimes who really struggle to understand the language even though they can say a large number of phrases and sentences very quickly. Once again, should these people be ashamed that they are unable to understand fluent conversation? Not at all: being able to contribute to a conversation really makes you feel like you are part of the community – and you are. Secondly, if this group wanted to improve their listening skills or start reading, how might they go about it? Very simply, they just need to go ahead and do as much listening as possible. They could start with material they find comprehensible and gradually work towards more difficult listening resources. Or, if they want to learn to read, they could quickly work their way through a beginner course if they still need to learn how the sounds and spelling relate to each other.
There are people who can write Gaelic very well indeed, but who struggle with the spoken language. For the most part, this tends to be due to a lack of one or both of the following: practice and confidence. Anyone who can write Gaelic fluently is more than capable of converting that ability into the spoken language. But, writing is not speaking. When you write, you have much more time to check things, look words up, re-phrase your awkward sentences, etc. When you speak, you must just speak: you will make mistakes, you will often use simpler structures, and you will often muddle words up. Anyone who wants to convert their writing skill into speaking skill will have to spend a concentrated amount of time speaking. And, at the same time, that person will have to disengage that perfectionist part of the brain that is desperate to avoid mistakes: speaking any language involves making mistakes… lots of them.
For all of these people – regardless of how much Gaelic they know, or how apparently limited their competences are – it is absolutely incorrect to imagine that their Gaelic is ‘worthless’. To have even one of the four competences in Gaelic is a fantastic and hugely valuable thing, and you should be proud of the fact that you have that. If you feel you want to add one or more of the other skills, that’s great: we will always have advice for you here at Progressive Gaelic. But, even if you decide not to try to add any other competences, you already have a wonderful gift.
Are you someone who has a partial knowledge of Gaelic, or do you know people who have? What are your thoughts and experiences on the issue? Leave a comment below: we'd love to hear from you.