Things you will hear about learning Gaelic (1)

This is going to be a series of posts about the myths you are likely to hear about learning Gaelic. Unfortunately, there are many, and I doubt I can even get close to listing them all. Over the next few months, I intend to contribute occasional posts that get to grips with some of these myths. In fact, they are not all entirely myths: some of them have elements of truth in them, including the one I will look at today. This is one of the reasons they become so tenacious and difficult to shake off.



Since there are so many of these "things you will hear about learning Gaelic (that are only partly true at best)", I would welcome suggestions from members of the community to expand on the following list:


1. You must avoid using English

2. Using translation creates some kind of magical flaws in your learning

3. Children learn languages much more quickly/easily than adults

4. Method X is the best method and works better than all other methods for learning

5. Learning to speak Gaelic is much easier than learning to read it

6. The Gaelic of domain A is not the 'same language' as the Gaelic of domain B

7. I started learning Gaelic too old to really learn it properly

8. You can’t really learn Gaelic without moving to the Western Isles

9. It’s not a Gaelic concept / they don’t say that in Gaelic

10. I can't [delete whichever doesn't apply to you] speak/read/write/understand Gaelic, and therefore my Gaelic is worthless


Yes, there is some truth in many of these ideas, but none of them is completely true, and they tend to be brandished in what can only be described as harmful and discouraging ways by people who should know better.


Let's begin today with:


You must avoid using English

Let’s assume that you are starting to learn Gaelic having already mastered English (and this is a big assumption that is by no means certain: I have taught Gaelic to several students who knew little English, and I have met a number of people who learned Gaelic in other situations without being especially fluent in English. But, for the purposes of the post, let's go with the idea that you are fluent in English). If you are an adult, you might have spent all of your life to date thinking in English. Every thought, every concept, and every idea that pops into your head is framed in English, inasmuch as it is framed in language at all. That gives you an enormous advantage in learning Gaelic over a hypothetical person who had no languages at all. You see, although English and Gaelic are different languages, they are, nevertheless, both languages, and most of what each one does is reflected in some way or another in the other language. As soon as you have mastery of one language (simply by virtue of having grown up speaking one), you already have access to any other language. For instance, if you are used to looking at tables and recognising them as things that have names, it comes as no surprise to you when you discover in Gaelic that there are things with names that are called bùird. If you are used to getting your daily exercise by running, it comes as no surprise to you that Gaelic-speakers might get their daily exercise by ruith.

As you become more and more versed in Gaelic, you will start to add levels of subtlety to your understanding (much the same way we do as native speakers of any given language). This means that you may well start out with a rough-and-ready glossary of one-to-one equivalences in your mind. A good teacher will try to ensure that you understand that these glossaries are only a starting point. In the absence of a good teacher, trial and error will teach you (the same way it does with your native language). The first time you say dh’fhaighnich mi dheth an uinneag fhosgladh,* a native speaker will probably make a face and correct you. Does this mean it was bad that you thought ask and faighneachd were equivalent? Not at all. Half the time, they are. The rest of the time, trying the wrong thing and being corrected is exactly how you are going to learn… and remember! (Of course, as language teachers, we should be careful not to over-correct people, but that sounds like a whole other post...)

(*for the avoidance of doubt, this sentence would be considered wrong by most fluent Gaelic speakers; to ask someone to do something, the verb we normally use is iarr/iarraidh.)


How do you think without language?

As an adult, you actually can’t stop thinking and conceptualising through the medium of language once you have started doing that. Go ahead and try it: see how long you succeed. Look at some scenery or a picture or think about what has happened in your day so far, or else think about what you are going to do tomorrow. You are going to catch stray words passing through your mind unexpectedly all the time, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

My 11-year-old was recently working on his French homework. The exercise was based on matching French weather phrases to pictures. There was no English anywhere in the resource, either in the teaching phase or in the testing phase. And so, he duly went through the phrases, listening and repeating, learning the different ways to talk about the weather. Then, it came to the test phase. He would hear a phrase and then match it to the relevant picture. The first phrase came on the audio, “Il neige”, and he said out loud “so, it’s snowing”, and then he found the snowy picture. He didn’t vocalise every phrase like this, but I did hear him mumbling English words after several of the phrases ("ah, fog", etc.). And yet, he had learnt the French phrases by what was supposed to be a ‘direct’ method, and had never been told “the French for ‘it’s snowing’ is ‘il neige’”. It was simply completely natural for him to understand this new language in terms he already knew. Does this mean that his French is faulty? No, it doesn’t. It means he hasn’t reached the stage yet where he will naturally and easily think in French whenever he wants to. That stage will come when it comes: to imagine that you can create a shortcut to it is naïve.


If someone tells you to avoid using English altogether, this is terrible advice, and impossible to follow anyway. Imagine you know no Gaelic. Your teacher points at differently coloured elephants. There is a red elephant and a blue elephant. They point at the red one and say dearg, then they point at the blue one and say gorm. Do you just see two amorphous pictures and then hear the two words dearg and gorm and make a direct association? Of course not. You see these two pictures and immediately start thinking. You recognise them as elephants, because you have already seen these shapes and you have a word for them in English (but not in Gaelic). When your teacher points at the first one and says dearg, you might wonder if this is the Gaelic for ‘elephant’; when he/she then points to the second elephant and says gorm, you realise that that is probably wrong. You might quickly understand that the red elephant is the only one being called dearg and the blue one is the only one being called gorm. Do you then directly learn that these colours are dearg and gorm? Unlikely. Realistically, your brain that has already mastered English begins to map dearg to ‘red’ and gorm to ‘blue’. The teacher thinks you have managed to learn these two words without using English, but your brain knows better.

Similarly, if you need to know the Gaelic word for something and you have nobody around to ask, it would be ridiculous to refuse to look up the word in a dictionary just because you want to avoid having anything to do with English.



Don’t avoid English (unless you really, really want to – but, if you do, you are cutting off access to your best resource)

Knowing English helps you to learn Gaelic, because they are both European languages and they have a great deal in common. They both use very similar structural elements, they have recognisably similar ways of using sound, and they have vocabulary for most of the same cultural concepts: after all, both English and Gaelic have existed in Scotland for many centuries, and their speakers have come across most of the same things in that time. Yes, there are still some cultural elements that are specifically Gaelic, and you are going to be delighted to learn all about them. The more of that that you can learn through the medium of Gaelic, the better. But, globally, we are talking about a tiny proportion of daily life for most people. Almost all of the concepts you engage with almost every day will be held in common between both languages. Use that to your advantage, instead of pretending it is a problem.

In fact, many of the world’s most powerful language-learning resources make excellent use of whatever other language you have previously mastered, including your native language. Although only one of these currently exists for Gaelic, the Progressive Gaelic team is currently exploring whether it will be possible to make some of the others available in future. The only one of these resources that currently exists in Gaelic is, of course, Glossika. You have read about Glossika on this blog before. We believe it is one of the best resources ever developed for helping learners to make the all-important jump from post-beginner (able to piece sentences together slowly and able to understand slow dialogue or straightforward text) to intermediate, independent speaker. Glossika makes use of relatively free translation methods to let you compare how you would say a thing in (in this case) English and how you would say it (again, in this case) in Gaelic. Then, there is Assimil, world-famous as being one of the most favoured learning tools among polyglots. Assimil courses teach you by presenting you with stories in the target language and in another language you already know (actually, most of the courses are available only with French as the ‘key’, but you can pick up some languages that have English versions). Then we have the celebrated Pimsleur and Michel Thomas methods, which are vaguely similar in a way. Both of these methods involve long lessons that concentrate on teaching a small number of words and phrases very thoroughly, mostly using audio. I tend to prefer the Pimsleur method, as it has only native speakers on the audio, but many people enjoy learning via the Michel Thomas method, where you are learning ‘along with’ a couple of other beginners who have been recorded for the audio (the advantage being that you quickly realise that other people make the same mistakes that you make, and you are actually not stupid!). (I remember using a similar course for Welsh for a while twenty years ago and enjoying it: I think it was a Welsh radio programme, and it featured famous anglophone Welsh people who had decided to make the effort to learn the language.) Both Pimsleur and Michel Thomas teach by encouraging you to relate longer phrases in English with equivalent phrases in your target language. There is a very innovative method called Linkword which absolutely encourages you to make use of English in learning your first couple of thousand words. It makes the claim that, using the special memory techniques it incorporates, you can learn your first thousand words or so in a long weekend. Having recently used the method myself, I can confirm that it does work and that you also retain the vast bulk of those words. Interestingly, the memory techniques in Linkword remind me of some of the tricks I have always used myself to speed up vocabulary learning. Linkword works by getting you to remember little stories (in English) that link the sound of the word you are learning with its meaning. My favourite resource for moving beyond the early intermediate stages (in fact, it has recently become viable even as a beginner method) is Lingq. Lingq presents you with reading matter in your target language and gives you ways to link unknown words and phrases with online dictionaries and translators so that you have your own 'key' to the stories. Using Lingq lets you boost your vocabulary massively (by thousands of words in just a few months) and also become accustomed to the way native speakers phrase things, and yet it makes liberal use of your own language (in this case, English). These are just a few of the methods that not only use English, but actually thrive on the fact that English is a tremendous resource for the language learner. I could go on and list many others, but I have concentrated on these because I know people who have become extremely proficient in at least one language using these methods.


The 'point of commitment' is different for all of us


Having said all of this, there is a right time to avoid using English. At the point when you have committed to trying to converse in Gaelic, you should strain every sinew to conduct yourself entirely in Gaelic… to express yourself entirely in Gaelic. This is why I suggest that the ‘point of commitment’ is going to be different for different people. Some people are perfectly content to commit themselves to talking in one-word utterances or expressing themselves in words of one syllable (note, however, that these people will usually also resort to mime and charades – in other words, they will not completely avoid using languages other than Gaelic!). Some people are content to trot out the same few words and phrases over and over for weeks or even months, because they are committed to speaking only Gaelic, and that is the only Gaelic they know. For them, that is fine. Other people prefer to have some level of mastery of structures, or to know a couple of thousand words or so, before they start trying to speak. For these people, they know that the first few conversations will be very difficult, but that they will quickly 'unlock' their speaking ability. Other people find the compromise that suits them, or they simply follow the course they are on, and speak when the course expects them to speak. For this reason, it will be up to you to decide when that ‘point of commitment’ will be. Once you start trying to express yourself only in Gaelic, and hearing only Gaelic, with your Gaelic conversation partners or tutors, you should stick with it and absolutely avoid dropping out of Gaelic again. This mental commitment will help push you towards ever greater fluency. It is the sense of committing yourself (more than whatever method you pursue or whatever knowledge you have) that actually forces you to become more fluent.

Are you eventually going to know some Gaelic words or expressions and not have an obvious equivalent for these in English? Yes, absolutely, you are. Will you require an English equivalent to all the Gaelic you are learning? No, not at all. As time goes by, you will become more and more comfortable with thinking in Gaelic and you will not even notice that you are learning more and more Gaelic words that have no clear equivalent in English. If that’s the case, then, why can’t you cut straight to that point? Because, at the beginning, you don’t know any Gaelic and clearly can’t think in Gaelic. As an adult, you can’t subordinate your instinct to think; you just can’t. Since you don’t know any Gaelic words, you are bound to think in a language you do know (for the sake of today’s post, we will assume that language is English). Once you do know enough Gaelic to be able to think in Gaelic, you will gradually start to do that. As soon as you can do that, you will no longer feel the need to keep mapping equivalences between the two languages. A time will come when someone will ask you what is the English for some word or other that you have just naturally and confidently used, and you will find yourself struggling to define it in anything less than a sentence. Congratulations: you are fluent.

We will have a post at a later date about how to transition to thinking in Gaelic. For many people, the transition comes gradually and automatically, without their having to do anything about it; other people have to go through certain steps in order to be able to make it happen. You won’t make it happen by trying to pretend you don’t know any other languages at the early stages. However, you definitely should act as if Gaelic is the only language you know eventually – as soon as you are able.

Remember, though: we are all different and we all learn languages differently. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is only one ‘correct’ way to learn. Instead, try things out and see what works for you. If you have previously tried to learn Gaelic and not made as much progress as you hoped, this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn. I am here to tell you that you definitely can. All that has happened is that you tried out methods that didn’t suit you. Try something else. Even be prepared to make your own method up. Don’t give up just because you heard someone say that the method you are using is wrong. It’s only wrong for you if it doesn’t work for you.

(Next time: creating a sense of accountability in your learning)

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