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The biggest mistake people make when learning Gaelic

What is the biggest mistake people make when learning Gaelic?

There are several mistakes that we all make when learning languages, and I hope this post doesn’t make you feel judged, because I have definitely done all of them myself… sometimes several times! Most of them are related to expectation management, and that is something I would like to write another post on at a later date, because it is an important element in controlling your progress. Specifically, though, in this post today, I would like to talk about what I consider the number one thing that people get wrong when learning Gaelic.

Let’s think about a number of idealised learners of the language. First, there is the person who attends an evening class at the local school or community centre. Let’s call this person George. George has been going along to the class for a couple of years now, having always wanted to learn Gaelic but never having had the time until he retired. At first, George was very excited to make a lot of progress very quickly. He learned how to exchange greetings and how to start building sentences in the first couple of weeks. Now, after two years, he still enjoys going to the classes, but the whole thing has become more of a social event for him, and he has secretly started to give up hope of ever being fluent.

Next, we will consider Barbara, who took up Gaelic after joining her local Gaelic choir. Initially, she was primarily interested in the music and the opportunity to sing with other people. However, she quickly decided that she would need to do some work on her pronunciation, and besides it might be helpful if she could understand a bit more of what she was singing about. Barbara bought a book and started working her way through it. It soon got a bit boring, though, and she has never got past the halfway point, despite having restarted it a few times.

Our final example will be Sheila, who has Gaelic-speaking grandparents and who always wanted to be able to connect with what she viewed as her heritage. In recent years, it became possible for her to take a distance learning course, and she really enjoyed the interaction and the opportunity to start genuinely having conversations in what had, previously, been almost a mystical part of her background. She has even gone and done residential short courses for the past few summers. Sheila has realised recently that, despite all she has picked up, she feels no closer to speaking Gaelic with her grandparents than she did when she started.

What are they all doing wrong?

They are all spending too much time stuck at one level. When we start learning Gaelic, it is easy to be enthusiastic about it, because each new day brings huge improvements. We can easily see the tremendous progress we are making, because going from complete beginner to someone who knows a little bit makes a massive change in perspective. Suddenly, we have some access to a language we couldn’t fathom at all before. Very quickly, though, the progress slows right down. If you have ever learnt any skill before (playing music, studying towards a profession, woodwork, drawing, sailing, or any other skill), you will have gone through the same process: at first, progress is quick and (relatively) easy, and then it soon slows down and feels more like a slog. You put in hour after hour of work and convince yourself that you are getting nowhere.

The key thing to bear in mind is that this is ok. This is all part of the process. The mistake people make when learning Gaelic is to believe that this sudden slowing down means that they are not learning and that they are, therefore, still essentially a beginner.

They are not beginners.

When you start learning Gaelic, you should ensure that you move on from thinking of yourself as a beginner within a matter of weeks, at most. As soon as you know a couple of hundred words or a few dozen phrases, you are not a beginner.

Related to this problem, George and Barbara and Sheila are all secretly nursing the belief that they are uniquely bad at Gaelic/languages. The chances are that they all did a bit of a language at school: French, German or Latin, probably, if they grew up in Scotland in the 1950s-1980s. Because they did a language that was compulsory (and yet meant nothing to them personally), they never made much progress and never developed much interest in it. Somewhere at the back of their minds, they have been left with an impression that this is what language learning is like: some people have a magical ability to learn languages, but they do not have this special power.


If George, Barbara and Sheila take a moment to think about it, they will realise that they have mastered a language to a very high level. They even had a decent level of mastery when they were children, and then they added to it, became good at reading and writing, got to the point where they were able to conduct their entire lives (including their profession or raising children) through the medium of that language. They learned English to a superb level. They do possess this special magical ability to learn a language.

What they did wrong was they forgot how long it took them to get really, really good at English. They forgot the level of support that was given to them all day every day for, say, 15 years until they got their English to the level where it was fully developed. And they definitely forgot all the many, many, many mistakes they made when they were learning English throughout their lives; they forgot how they used to talk in ungrammatical little phrases of monosyllabic words for the first couple of years they were learning English; they forgot how long adult talk all around them seemed like a semi-comprehensible mist of confusing noise. Ultimately, they forgot that learning a language takes quite a long time and a significant investment of time and energy. So, when the results with their Gaelic didn’t come quickly, they assumed that they were still stuck at beginner level.

They were not.

I have no doubt that George, Barbara and Sheila came across words in their classes/book that they haven’t managed to learn yet. I also have no doubt that they came across concepts (things to do with grammar or spelling or pronunciation or whatever else) that seemed a bit baffling at the time and so they still aren’t sure about those things – maybe they are even feeling intimidated by them. However, when they came across these words or concepts, they shouldn’t have said “I don’t get that, so I’m going to have to go back to the beginning and do this entire course/level/programme again”. Instead, they should have simply noted those problems and moved on.

Moved on??

I can practically hear you shouting at the screen. But… but… moved on?

Ok, calm down. Yes, they needed to note the problems and then move on to the next thing. When a language is new to you, some things will be difficult to grasp. Just bashing your head off the same thing again and again will rarely (if ever) allow you to work it out, understand it and learn it in a way that you can actually use it. The way around this is to familiarise yourself with the language. You can only do this by moving on and learning lots of other bits. You will, of course, still be aware of that ‘gap’ from earlier. This is absolutely fine. That nagging awareness will remind you to go back and sort it out later. The first time you go back and look at those words or concepts, you may discover that they are a bit less baffling but that you still can’t learn them. Not to worry; move on again. You’re not going to miss anything: those things will still be there for you when you come back and try them again for a third (or fourth) time. Eventually, you are going to be so familiar with the language in general that these things that tripped you up at the early stage will seem laughably easy to you. It’s not your fault: learning is weird like that!

The take-away lesson from this is: don’t be an eternal beginner like George, Barbara and Sheila. Set goals and targets for yourself. You can, and should, move beyond the beginner stage within a few weeks. Then you will likely come across the same issue when you are trying to move from post-beginner to lower intermediate stage. The same advice also holds here: don’t get stuck. You can always move on, take in more and more language (reading, listening, having conversations, writing to your friends), and come back for another look at things that bothered you once you feel more comfortable. George needs to move to level 2 in his course, Barbara needs to buy book 2, Sheila needs to start having more conversations and trying the higher level at her residential courses; and all of them need to set a goal for when they plan to get to level 3, etc. Generally speaking, each new level takes a bit longer than the one before, but none of them should take you forever… except when you get to the point where your Gaelic is native-like.

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Mike M
Mike M
Jun 23, 2021

I am really pleased I have read these comments at an early stage in my learning, I lived in Scotland and went to school there for ten years. I am now 70 and still have the yearning to learn Scottish Gaelic. Sailing my boat up the West coast I hope to meet others with the same passion for the language.


This is exactly what I needed right now. I've been learning Gaelic for 18 months, still thinking of myself as a beginner and feeling as though I'll never 'get there.' After reading this, I took a good look at my pile of notebooks and realized how much I do know. I am definitely not a beginner! What I do need at this point is more opportunities to use my Gaelic and that's something I'll pay more attention to. Of course, I have years of study ahead of me but this article has brought back that feeling of adventure that I had at the beginning. I feel like I can relax and enjoy the journey. Thank you!


Progressive Gaelic
Progressive Gaelic
Nov 08, 2020

I'm glad this post has resonated with people. It's not always easy to stick with it when you are learning a language and you constantly feel like the thing you are aiming for is just out of reach. But you will get there if you stick with it.


Nov 07, 2020

Thank you for the encouragement ; I needed to read this today .....


Thank you. This explains exactly how I feel sometimes. Then I take a step back and look at what I know now compared to 6 months or a year ago and realise I am way past being a beginner.


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