Learning Scottish Gaelic

by Jan 11, 2017

Maybe Scottish Gaelic is a part of your family heritage, or you’ve had a longstanding interest in Celtic cultures. Perhaps you were intrigued by a beautiful song, or by the words and phrases in Outlander. Whatever the reason, you may be thinking about learning Scottish Gaelic.

This blog post will give you an idea of where to start. You can follow a number of different paths to learn Gaelic, including online courses, local classes (depending on where you live), and destination learning. In the days before the internet, it was not always easy to find a Gaelic class; fortunately it’s a bit easier now.

In this post I’ll describe how to find local, online, and destination classes. This is not a list of all the classes available (though I link to two class listings below). After reading this post you will know what the general options are, and you’ll be able to seek out the classes that best suit your learning style and budget.


Local Heroes

If you live in an area where community Gaelic classes are offered, count yourself lucky because nothing beats face-to-face interaction for learning another language. Some courses may be offered as extension courses through universities, but dedicated volunteers are the force behind many community classes, study groups, and conversation circles in both North America and Scotland.

In the U.S., the Washington state Gaelic language and cultural society Slighe nan Gàidheal has been offering Gaelic language classes in Seattle since the 1990s. “Zero to Gaelic,” their adult language education program, is designed to fit the schedules of busy folks who cannot attend a more traditional weekly class. The program consists of six day-long Saturday classes each year for three years. The teachers are mostly locally-based fluent speakers who learned Gaelic as adults. After completing the three-year program, students can continue to take Ceum Suas (Step Up) classes in various topics.

Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile, the Halifax Gaelic Society, is a voluntary nonprofit group founded in 2005 to provide Gaelic classes to the Halifax area in Nova Scotia, Canada. New courses at four levels start three times annually. Locally-trained tutors teach in the Gàidhlig aig Baile (GAB) method, which involves learning to speak Gaelic through activities and patterned repetition, with no reading or writing allowed.

Norma MacLean started off by taking a Sgoil Ghàidhlig course, and ended up serving as president of the organization for five years. She said that the GAB classes “give you confidence. It becomes natural to sit there and chat. That is one of the highlights of the method: because you’re always in the moment, it does cause you to think in Gaelic.”

The Ùlpan course, based on the principles of the Ulpan system in Hebrew and Wlpan in Welsh, uses games, conversation, and repetition to develop the speaking skills of students. The Ùlpan website lists upcoming courses in Scotland by location.

An Ùlpan Gaelic class in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2012

An Ùlpan Gaelic class in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2012

Local classes, study groups, and conversation circles can be difficult to keep track of as they come and go over the years. An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach, The American Scottish Gaelic Society, keeps a helpful updated list of local courses in North America on their website.

As of January 2017, the Learn Gaelic website provides a listing of local Gaelic classes. The list is most complete for Scotland, but also includes courses in other areas including London, continental Europe, and North America. Gaelic course and study group organizers anywhere in the world can submit their information to include on the site.

In Bonn, Germany, the Acadamaidh na Gàidhlig sa’ Ghearmailt/Deutsches Zentrum für Gälische Sprache und Kultur provides courses, workshops, and events through the medium of Gaelic and German.

Finally, Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia lists local courses in Australia and New Zealand on its website.


From a Distance

Technology has changed the language learning scene a great deal in the past few decades; people who cannot find a course locally can now take classes online and through Skype.

The Atlantic Gaelic Academy conducts both local community courses in the Maritime provinces of Canada and Skype-based courses for students around the world. AGA offers five levels; each level runs for nine months, from September to May, with 30 three-hour sessions. The course thus takes five years to complete and is designed to take students through from no ability to fluency. Afterward, students can continue with more advanced courses in which they study and discuss Gaelic literature in Gaelic.

The teachers come from a variety of backgrounds; some are native speakers from Scotland, some are fluent speakers from Nova Scotia, and others have become fluent by working through AGA’s own program and studies in Scotland.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, offers an innovative year-long distance course aimed at total beginners called An Cùrsa Inntrigidh. The course materials are provided online, and group telephone tutorials take place once per week, with students calling in to a land line at the college. After completing the course, students can go on to take a university-level Gaelic course at Sabhal Mòr either through distance learning or in person.

The Gaelic College in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, offers two different online Gaelic courses, online video lessons and online lessons called Beul an Tobair (Mouth of the Well).

An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach lists distance classes and private instructors on their website.

The Acadamaidh na Gàidhlig sa’ Ghearmailt/Deutsches Zentrum für Gälische Sprache und Kultur in Bonn provides Skype-based Gaelic courses for German speakers.

The Scottish government-funded Learn Gaelic website (learngaelic.net) features a free online beginner course.

An older free online course is available from Taic (also see the free course Beag air Bheag listed in the following section).

Duolingo is not available in Scottish Gaelic and I am not aware of any current plans to make it available. Duolingo is “crowdsourced,” which in this case means “getting people to give away their time, skills, and knowledge for free to a corporation that makes a profit from it.”

As I see it, developing Scottish Gaelic for Duolingo would involve Gaelic language instructors and fluent speakers donating their unpaid time to an effort that, when complete, would take earning opportunities away from them (both language instruction and translation services). As there are already not enough decently-paid opportunities for trained Gaelic language instructors, I would advise either to use a currently-existing free resource or to pay for a course in order to materially support members of the endangered Gaelic language community. No one goes into Gaelic for the money, but it is fair to pay people for their time, skills, knowledge, and experience, particularly when those skills are rare as in the case of Gaelic.

Even if Duolingo is developed for Scottish Gaelic someday, the example of Irish on Duolingo provides some reasons not to use it for beginner lessons. The Geeky Gaeilgeoir and the /r/An Gaeilge subreddit on Reddit.com both offer well-reasoned opinions about this.


Destination: Gaelic

If learning something new is your idea of fun, or if you miss the camaraderie and intensity of summer camp, then you can consider taking a “destination” Gaelic course as a part of your vacation travel. Every summer, residential Gaelic courses are offered in North America and Scotland in locations characterized by natural beauty and other tourist attractions. Some folks use these courses to jump in at the deep end, while others see them as a chance to intensify studies they started at home.

In the U.S., ACGA runs the Beinn Seanair Gaelic Song & Language Week at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina each year. The week takes place just before the famous Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

Although the Blue Ridge Mountains are a big attraction, Dr. Jamie MacDonald, founder of the event and one of the Gaelic language instructors, says that the attendees themselves make the week special. “The teachers from Scotland are always amazed at how interested the students are in the language and how eager they are to learn,” he observes.

Colaisde na Gàidhlig, the Gaelic college located in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada is committed to the Gaelic language as the foundation of Nova Scotia’s Celtic culture. In its Summer School, the college presents five week-long sessions from July through mid-August, with two weeks for youth, two weeks for adults, and one for families.

In a typical week-long course, a student chooses five different subjects on which to focus. Although it’s not a language immersion experience, it is possible to put together a schedule with three out of five classes focused on Gaelic language, classes, GAB language classes, Dràma, and Òrain (songs). Instrumental music and dance classes, taught in English, also emphasize the importance of Gaelic in Cape Breton’s cultural traditions.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland is one of the most well-known destination summer schools. The Cùrsaichean Goirid, short courses in Gaelic language and traditional music, have been running for 40 years now.

The SMO courses are popular; for example, about 750 students took a SMO short course in 2012. One student, Robert Forsyth from Blue Mountain in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, found that the week-long session boosted his skills, enthusiasm, and confidence, and significantly broadened his view of the language. Forsyth met fellow Gaelic students from Sweden, France, and Ireland: “I learned that Gaelic is not just spoken in isolated communities in Cape Breton or the Highlands of Scotland. It is alive and valued and spoken by many people in Canada and in countries across Europe.”

Sometimes specialty immersion courses are run by individual teachers in private homes. Keep an eye out in the Facebook groups dedicated to Scottish Gaelic (see next section) for announcements of these courses, or ask an established Gaelic teacher; they are usually only advertised through word-of-mouth.


Free Resources

The most up-to-date list of free Gaelic learning resources online is on the Learn Gaelic site. The resources can be reached from different places on the menu (and I encourage you to explore). They are listed on one page.

The Learn Gaelic free resources include a good online dictionary with audio pronunciation files (based with permission on Am Faclair Beag, see next paragraph), an older course for absolute beginners called Beag air Bheag (Little by Little), The 1990s television program “Speaking Our Language”, “Litir do Luchd-Ionnsachaidh” (A Letter to Gaelic Learners), and an even simpler “Litir Bheag” (Little Letter), videos, and more.

Another significant free resource is the iGàidhlig site created by Akerbeltz, which has produced the free online dictionary Am Faclair Beag. The iGàidhlig site creates software for Gaelic and translates existing software into Gaelic. (See my blog post for an interview with the creator of this resource.)

It’s a good idea to join one or more Facebook groups when you start to learn Gaelic – these can help connect you to other learners and speakers and to become familiar with the culture. Most of them range from 1000 to 3000+ members, although many of those are probably the same people. Lurk for a while first to learn about the tone of the group and the average kinds of questions and posts. (And please don’t bomb in with a tattoo translation request.)

Gàidhlig na h-Alba ~ Scottish Gaelic – The largest of the Gaelic Facebook groups, with over 3600 members. Posts in Gaelic and English relevant to Scottish Gaelic language and culture, news, and events.

Gàidhlig na h-Alba ☯ Scottish Gaelic – Similar name, different group with over 2000 members.

Scottish Gaelic Speakers Unite! – A slightly more political group, although similar in content to the first two, with about 2800 members.

Iomairtean Gàidhlig – Mainly posts in English and Gaelic about Gaelic events and news stories.

Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig – Scottish Gaelic Learners – Posts in Gaelic and English relevant to adults learning the language; probably the best group to join as a beginner.

An Taigh Cèilidh – Gaelic conversation, with a few hundred members.

On Reddit.com, the subreddit /r/gaidhlig, with fewer than 200 members as of the time of writing, provides another forum for discussion in Gaelic and English.


Learning Tips

Here are some tips based on my experiences of learning Gaelic since 1989:

Be patient. No matter what type of course you take, it takes time to learn a language. Your progress may follow a pattern where each jump in ability is followed by an apparent plateau. But if you put in the time and effort, then beag air bheag, little by little, you will get there.

Take charge of your own learning. I am as guilty as anyone else of paying the fee, showing up at the Gaelic course, and then just basically living for the tea breaks. Resist the tendency to be passive, though – you’ll get out of it what you put into it. Be an active participant in your own learning, do the homework, ask questions, overcome your fear and talk. Also understand that not every course or teacher’s style might work for you – give it a fair chance and then if it’s not working for you, try something different.

Expect to sing. It’s a rare Gaelic instructor who would not be teaching you a song or two along with the grammar and conversation. Gaelic song is a highly valued part of the culture and a great way to work on pronunciation and vocabulary, so jump right in. You can also buy the albums of Gaelic singers and learn songs by singing along while reading the lyrics.

Talk as much as possible. Learning a new language takes you out of your comfort zone, but seeking out opportunities to speak to others will help you put into actual practice what you have learned in theory.

Listen a lot. For many people it’s difficult to find places where you can hear spoken Gaelic, but listening to the singing of fluent Gaelic speakers, and programs on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, is a great help with the unique pronunciation and rhythm. You can also listen to Reidio Guth nan Gàidheal, volunteer-run on-demand Gaelic-themed programming from the U.S. including podcasts and music (this is also a great place to “try before you buy” Gaelic singers’ albums).

Follow your passion. Whether it’s learning how to pronounce the name of your favourite whisky, or memorizing the lyrics of a song you love, do what makes you happy. You never know where it might lead you.

There you have it, an overview of where to learn Scottish Gaelic and how to start. If you’re already taking a Gaelic course, feel free to leave a comment below saying which course and what you like about it!

Also, if you find any broken links, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll update the post. Mòran taing!

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