Advice for German Gaelic Learners

by Mar 16, 2016

People are learning the Scottish Gaelic language all over the world. You might expect the countries to which Gaels emigrated in the 18th–20th centuries to be among the places where Gaelic language learning is the most popular. That is indeed the case, but another country where many people are studying Gaelic is Germany.

This post was inspired by a question that I received from a German blog reader. She was looking for advice because she was very interested in learning Gaelic, but had received negative reactions from some native Gaelic speakers and was not sure whether to pursue Gaelic. I’m sharing her question and my answer with her permission. “Sophie” (a pseudonym) wrote:

I am from Germany and quite fluent in English and on my way to be fluent in Spanish as well, I also had Latin lessons in school. My last English teacher (who is originally from Scotland) did something where she taught us some Gaelic in the last weeks before vacations began. I really started taking interest then and she suggested the book “Scottish Gaelic in twelve weeks” to everyone who voiced interest.


I had my first graduation that following year so I put it aside. (I am now 17 and working on my next graduation in two years). I picked up interest in this language again, since I am less stressed now and have a much better concept of how to study. I began talking to some people about it and I had some natives tell me that it is disrespectful that I want to learn to speak it. They asked me for my motives, which are that I love languages and want to go to university for linguistics or something similar and that I fell in love with Gaelic and Scotland. They just dropped the discussion then.


Now I am in serious doubt about whether or not I should learn it. I pick up grammar and vocabulary quite fast and never had trouble with learning any language at all but all the negativity made me think about it.


Here is the original advice I gave to Sophie, along with some extra details and encouragement. It’s important to encourage learners because every new speaker of the language can contribute to the language community in some way. In fact the “new speakers” of minority languages, defined by sociolinguists as “individuals with little or no home or community exposure to a minority language but who instead acquire it through immersion or bilingual educational programs, revitalization projects or as adult language learners” (O’Rourke et. al 2015), are among the groups who are helping to reverse the decline in numbers of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, to say nothing of Nova Scotia where they are the most numerous users of Gaelic.

I remember in my first Gaelic course at the University of Aberdeen about a million years ago, there were students from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, and Iceland. We had a great time in class and at Celtic Society activities and learned so much together. It showed me that learning and using Gaelic doesn’t have to be about “blood” or where you were born. Everyone deserves to have a positive experience like that when learning Gaelic.

The Many Contributions of German Gaels

German students are a definite presence not only in the mainland university Gaelic programs, but also at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. In 2010, a SMO representative said “Germans tend to be exceptional students who continue to live and work in Scotland and remain very committed to the language.” in 2010-11, there were 3 German students on full-time courses at Sabhal Mòr, and in 2011-12 there were expected to be 3 full-time, 3 in distance learning courses, and 11 on short Gaelic courses.

German Gaels have made many contributions to contemporary Gaelic culture and institutions. For example:

Michael Bauer is a computer programmer and developer of iGàidhlig localization software for Scottish Gaelic-medium computer applications, as well as the co-creator of the online Gaelic-English dictionary Am Faclair Beag.

Janni Diez is the Language Development Officer of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Michael Klevenhaus is the founder and director of Deutsches Zentrum für Gälische Sprache und Kultur in Bonn, Germany. He has created a Gaelic language coursebook and a Gaelic grammar for German speakers. His institute provides Gaelic evening classes, weekend classes and Skype courses through German.

Sìleas Landgraf NicLeòid is a postdoctoral researcher at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig who earned a PhD in Gaelic Sociolinguistics through SMO, University of the Highlands and Islands and University of Aberdeen.

Andreas Wolff is a BBC Alba correspondent and Gaelic teacher living in Scotland.

There are so many enthusiastic and successful German learners of Gaelic, in fact, that a Gaelic word has been coined to describe them: Gàidheileamailteach, or German Gael, a Gaelic portmanteau made by combining the Gaelic words Gàidheal (Gael) and Gearmailteach (German).

The Gaelic television channel BBC Alba aired a 2013 television documentary about German Gaels, “Na Gàidheileamailtich.” Sadly the program is no longer available online, but a short clip can still be viewed internationally.

The March 2016 launch in Bonn of Michael Klevenhaus's Gaelic novel for young people, Uinneag don Iar (Window to the West), about the Berlin Wall and its aftermath.

The March 2016 launch in Bonn of Michael Klevenhaus’s Gaelic novel for young people, Uinneag don Iar (Window to the West), about the Berlin Wall and its aftermath. Photo credits: Michael Klevenhaus (L) and Heike Winter (R).

Why Were Some Gaelic Native Speakers Discouraging You?

Because the Gaelic language was dismissed, denigrated and attacked for so long in Scotland, over the past few centuries many native Gaelic speakers came to accept the majority Scottish culture’s negative view of their own language.

Some native speakers may also see the language not as a means of universal communication that can be learned and used by anyone, but rather as an in-group language that properly belongs only to them. (I have written an academic article relating to this.)

A bharrachd air a sin (in addition to that), some native speakers are not literate in Gaelic — they cannot read and write it — and when people like this meet students who are interested in learning Gaelic through reading and writing, or Gaelic learners who can read and write the language easily, they may feel threatened or defensive. (I have written an academic article about this phenomenon too. It was my own negative experiences that led me to want to understand these kinds of reactions better.)

Reflecting on my own Gaelic learning efforts, I have met many more positive people than negative people, although the discouraging people and trolls are strong in my memory and have hurt me deeply. But “negativity bias” seems to be a human trait. We recall our negative experiences in better detail than positive ones. My advice would be to disregard the discouraging people. Thank them politely for their input and then move on and forget about them if you can. Instead, consciously dwell on the positive encouragement that you received from your first Gaelic teacher. Seek out teachers and fellow students with a positive attitude, learn Gaelic to the best of your ability (which sounds very great indeed!), and enjoy. I should take my own advice more often; thank you for reminding me of this with your question!

Resources for Gaelic Learners in Germany

Fortunately there are many good resources available to support your Gaelic learning in Germany. I asked Davine Sutherland, a Scottish Gaelic teacher living in Germany, about your situation. Davine encourages you to continue learning Gaelic, and suggests some resources to support your learning journey:

The German Gaelic Facebook group:

Michael Klevenhaus’s German forum in Bonn:

A coursebook by Michael Klevenhaus that comes with answers and audio CDs:

Deutsches Zentrum für Gälische Sprache und Kultur – Acadamaidh na Gàidhlig: night classes, weekend classes, and Skype courses:

Runrig's album launch for "The Story" in Bochum, Germany, January 2016. Photo courtesy of Davine Sutherland.

Runrig’s album launch for “The Story” in Bochum, Germany, January 2016. Photo courtesy of Davine Sutherland.

Words of Encouragement to German Gaelic Learners

I asked some German Gaels and a German-speaking Gael if they could provide advice to Sophie and other German-speaking people who are interested in learning Gaelic. Here are their words of advice and encouragement:

Janni Diez, Language Planning officer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, says:

“You should definitely continue to learn Gaelic. Although you will come across Gaelic speakers who don’t approve of your efforts to learn what they feel is their language, there are also many who will support and encourage you. Learning Gaelic will open doors to another culture and world which needs every single speaker of Gaelic. It will broaden your linguistic and cultural horizon and might give you great job opportunities. Don’t give up!”


Fearchar MacIllfhinnein, a fluent speaker of Gaelic and German who works in a Gaelic-related job in Scotland, offers this advice:

“Emily hat eigentlich alles gesagt, was nötig ist, aber in Deutschland lohnt es sich bestimmt, sich in Verbindung mit Michael Klevenhaus zu setzen. Es gibt noch mehrere Gälischlerner unter den Deutschen, aber ab und zu mal gibt es Wochenendkursen in Bonn. Man kann auch die Webseite gebrauchen, um weitere Informationen und Lernmaterialien zu bekommen. Man soll auch in Kauf nehmen, dass die moisten Gälischsprecher weder auf dem schottishen Inseln noch auf dem Hochlandsgebiet wohnen sondern in den Ballungsgebieten, aber Gälischsprecher in ländlichen Gegenden sind leichter zu finden. Wir haben keine Merkmale wie grüne Hautfarbe oder Schwänze, obwohl man manchmal etwas Akzent auf Englisch erkennen kann.


BBC Radio nan Gaidheal ist leicht zu empfangen und zwar in der ganzen Welt (na ja, wo es Internetverbindung gibt), und viele hören Sendungen in ganz fernen Ländern wie Australien oder Canada zu.”


Finally, Michael Klevenhaus, founder of Deutsches Zentrum für Gälische Sprache und Kultur – Acadamaidh na Gàidhlig, advises:

Dear Sophie, if you want to learn Gaelic, do it and let nobody keep you from doing it. I can tell you from my own experience that the overwhelming majority of Gaelic speakers will appreciate your efforts and will support you. It will be different from learning French or another “big” language but worth it. If you need some advice about how and where to start don’t hesitate to ask me.


Liebe Sophie, wenn Du Gälisch lernen möchtest, dann mach es und lass Dich von niemandem abhalten. Aus meiner eigenen Erfahrung kann ich Dir sagen, dass die überwiegende Mehrheit der Gälischsprecher Dich dabei unterstützen wird. Es wird anders sein, als würdest Du Französisch oder eine andere “große” Sprache lernen, aber es lohnt sich. Wenn Du eine Rat brauchst, wie und wo Du am besten anfängst, kannst Du mich gerne fragen. Viel Glück!


We all encourage German people who are interested in Gaelic and Scottish culture to take up the study of Scottish Gaelic language, wherever you are!

This post ends with a 1993 song by the Scottish Gaelic band Runrig, “Sràidean Na Roinn Eòrpa” (Streets Of Europe), which contains an emotional and encouraging acknowledgement of the band’s strong German fan base and the possibilities of cultural exchange.



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