What Kind of Gaelic Learner Are You?

by Jun 12, 2015

With this post I’ve decided to poke a bit of fun at those of us who started learning Gaelic as adults. Based on my experiences on and off over 25 years in Scotland and North America, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common types (or stereotypes?) of adult Gaelic learners.

What kind of Gaelic learner are you? Depending on where you live and how you learn(ed) Gaelic, you might fit into more than one category — or none of them!


1. The Beginner

You’re taking beginner-level Gaelic classes. Everything is just so different from English. You can’t say much except “Ciamar a tha thu?” and “Tha gu math.

If you’re in a traditional classroom setting where you are allowed to write things down, you are desperately trying to take notes to remember how things sound. When you go back to your notes the next day for pronunciation guidance, they are worthless! You can’t remember anything. You’re so frustrated.

If you’re in a no-writing-allowed immersion class, you’re still desperately trying to remember how to pronounce everything. You don’t know what anyone is saying half the time, and you want to ask questions, but you’re not allowed. You can’t remember anything. You’re so frustrated.

You frequently go on Facebook groups to ask how to translate English words and phrases into Gaelic. You may not yet understand that not everything can be literally translated word for word from one language to another.

Benefit: Everything is new and exciting!

Disadvantage: You have no idea how much you don’t know… and you’re a deer in the headlights if someone speaks to you in Gaelic.


2. The Eternal Intermediate

You have been taking classes once a week for anywhere from 2 to 20 years… or more. But no matter how much you study, you never seem to make progress. You can hold a conversation, as long as the other person you’re talking to doesn’t mind long strangled silences while you search for the correct word. You’ve never had a chance to experience an immersion situation, or perhaps you haven’t had enough mentors who have engaged you in enough supportive Gaelic conversations on a regular basis to get over the hump.

Benefit: You’ve learned quite a lot about Gaelic language, culture, and history, and you can probably read Gaelic reasonably well with a dictionary.

Disadvantage: That glass ceiling. Also, having a conversation feels like driving along the edge of a cliff with no guardrail.


3. The Prodigy

You’re a language learning genius. Once you decided to learn Gaelic, you just locked yourself in a room for a year with a pile of books and came out fluent, or at least that’s what everyone thinks. Now you command multiple registers of Gaelic and you’re better at speaking, reading, and writing than many native speakers. They give you backhanded compliments about the purity and complexity of your Gaelic… in English.

Benefit: People bow down to your superior knowledge.

Disadvantage: People don’t want to go to the pub with you since you clearly prefer the company of books.


4. The Linguist

Like the Prodigy, people assume you have superhuman language learning powers (which you may or may not actually possess). You take a strong academic or literary interest in Gaelic; in fact, you are probably working on a degree in Celtic studies, history, linguistics, or social science. If you’ve finished the degree, then you’re probably working on an article, monograph, novel, or poetry collection. The library is your happy place. You might be interested in literature, sound recordings, primary source documents, linguistic structure, historical linguistics, onomastics, sociolinguistics, culture and social structure… but any way you slice it, you are driven by intellectual curiosity.

Benefit: Your research subjects bow down to your superior knowledge.

Disadvantage: You can’t convince your research subjects that you would rather bow down to their superior knowledge. (Either that, or your research subjects are all dead.)


5. The Dialect Devotee

You’ve selected a historical Gaelic dialect of a particular area, connected with either your ancestry or where you now live. Using archival recordings, written descriptions, and a handful of elderly native speakers if you’re lucky, you have set yourself the enormous, noble task of revitalizing this dialect. The dialect is substantially different from Lewis, Uist, and Skye Gaelic. This is a potentially lonely road, and your strength, motivation, and confidence are awesome.

Benefit: No one can really correct your pronunciation.

Disadvantage: Everyone will still try to correct your pronunciation.


6. The Super Dad

You’re a father, and you’ve decided that not only will you learn Gaelic, but also you will speak it to your young child(ren) and they shall learn it. No choice, you are the king (laird?) of the castle and you are possessed of an iron will. You speak all Gaelic and only Gaelic to the kid(s) at home, all day and every day. Eliezer ben Yehuda is your hero and you don’t even know it.

Most likely your wife or life partner cannot speak the language. She doesn’t really have time to take classes, either, since she’s so busy doing the school run, making and keeping the kids’ appointments for the doctor, dentist, and haircuts, taking the kids to swimming lessons, sports practice, dance lessons, karate, etc., cooking dinner, and probably working outside the home as well.

Benefit: “I create new native speakers — what’s your superpower?”

Disadvantage: After you’ve read Tè Bheag a’ Ghruffalo aloud for the 100th time and put the kids to bed, you can’t have an adult conversation in Gaelic at home.



Abair dictionary in a mason jar


7. The Gaeilgeoir

You’re already fluent in Gaeilge (Irish), and so you think, Why not learn Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) too? How hard can it be? It may be easily available to you in your Celtic studies university program, or from a Gaelic institution like Oideas Gael or Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. (But if you also said “Why not learn Manx Gaelic?” or “Why not learn Welsh or Breton?” then see “The Prodigy” above.)

Benefit: Since it’s so similar to Irish, the Gaelic grammar, vocabulary, and spelling that non-Gaels agonize over is a piece of cáca milis for you… at least at the start.

Disadvantage: It’s tha, not . Also, false friends and tricky verb tenses and how do you pronounce craobh and bhaile again? (Also you have to stop yourself from reminding Scottish Gaels that Irish is superior.)


8. The Back-to-the-Lander

You believe that the most authentic Gaelic lifestyle is a rural one, and you’re living the dream. As part of your effort to learn Gaelic, you have leased a croft (Scotland), bought a farm (Nova Scotia), or at least planted a vegetable garden and started doing your own canning… or you plan on doing these things as soon as possible and idolize the folks who do.

Benefit: Eating the fruits of your labour, literally.

Disadvantage: Your Gaelic comes with a side order of manure. Also, the circle of life.


9. The Musician

Gaelic music and song were the motivation for you to learn the language. Even if you can’t speak Gaelic fluently yet, your singing is heavenly. If you don’t already have your Silver or Gold card for the Mòd, you’re probably working toward it. If you’re a piper or fiddler, you know that there are in fact port-a-beul lyrics to many of the trad tunes you play. Your idea of a good time is a week-long fèis or music camp.

Benefit: As a musician or singer you’re far more welcome anywhere — cèilidhs, kitchen parties, festivals, concerts — than you would be as a plain old Gaelic speaker.

Disadvantage: Somewhere out there, when you least expect it, a native speaker gonna hate on your style, your voice, your pronunciation, your songs, your tune selections, your arrangements…


10. The Job’s Worth

You are one of those rare people who is actually having your Gaelic language course paid for by someone else, probably an employer. And damn right; you wouldn’t bother if they weren’t. You sure as heck don’t want to go to class more than once a week; that would cut into your social schedule. And forget homework.

Benefit: You’re getting something for nothing.

Disadvantage: You’ll only get as much out of it as you put into it… which is, in this case, pretty close to nothing.


11. The Lapsed or Semi-Speaker

You grew up hearing Gaelic spoken in the home or on visits to relatives, but you didn’t become fluent. Or maybe you did become fluent by speaking with your grandparents, but then you went for decades without speaking Gaelic at all. Now you’ve taken the brave step of formal language classes to rediscover and recover your quasi-native language.

Benefit: Your blas or accent is impeccable and you are totally familiar with Gaelic culture already.

Disadvantage: Your instinct for what “sounds right” doesn’t always match up with textbook grammar. Nonetheless, it feels so right that you may have a hard time accepting the authority of the teacher… especially if you feel that you’re more Gaelic than they are.


12. The Former GME Pupil

You attended a Gaelic Medium Education school or unit as a child. You feel like a native speaker; you can’t remember ever not being able to speak Gaelic. But you still begin every sentence with “Tha,” and you keep using words that do not mean what you think they mean. You need to take your Gaelic to the next level for future employment, so you’re taking a university course.

Benefit: You feel very comfortable and confident using the language.

Disadvantage: Your instinct for what “sounds right” in Gaelic doesn’t always match up with textbook grammar — even in areas as basic as the genitive case, adjectival agreement, and simple verb tenses. You may have a hard time accepting the authority of the teacher, because to you, it’s just how you learned Gaelic.


Postscript: Learning a language as an adult, or even later in childhood, is called Second Language Acquisition (SLA) in linguistics. When this happens with a minority language community like Gaelic, SLA language learners are called “New Speakers” to differentiate them from traditional “native speakers.” Academic study aside, though, we can still laugh and appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Post-Postscript: I’ve been 1 and 2, and will always be 4…

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