Motivation and a Change of Pace

It’s the end of January, and that means several things:

  • I have come to the end of my Gaelic Mission
  • It’s a new year, and with it I am changing the way I’m handling language learning
  • I’m about to embark on a new adventure

That’s a lot to cover, but I’ll try and do it quickly.

Mi agus a’ Ghàidhlig

After three months of Gaelic study, I have a lot to share. First and foremost, I must admit that I didn’t make my B2 goal. This isn’t surprising. But I didn’t even come close. I’d say I’m somewhere in the A2 range, though more so written than spoken. With all that time, you’d think I’d get farther, and I had hoped to, but I didn’t push as hard as I could have. I’m completely fine with this.

When I set out to learn Gaelic, I wanted to get to a B2 level so that I would have two things: (1) the ability to converse with people with relative ease and (2) a high enough level that I didn’t have to worry about losing the language too much if I were to get distracted by another language or just be unable to use my Gaelic for a while. This was an even greater concern given that I don’t live near much of a Gaelic speaking community.

I learned a lot of Gaelic, and my passive abilities went up enormously. But I learned more about how to learn languages, the value of communities, and how I personally approach my language studies.

As I mentioned before, connecting with the online community is invaluable if you want to learn Gaelic. Not only is there a wealth of people who want to learn and help you learn, but with so few speakers outside of the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland and Nova Scotia), it is really rare that you might find a lot of people to speak with. A large percentage of the community are heritage speakers, and they are all passionate about keeping the language alive. Connecting with them is a great way to connect with the culture.

But learning Gaelic has forced me to work harder to interpret the grammars, phonetics, and vocabularies of the language I’m learning. I’ve had to improvise new ways to approach problems I’m having as I study. It’s also been a great language to use to prove to myself the value in memorizing sentences versus words (though I actually advocate BOTH). Most importantly, Gaelic has made me consider the way I have been approaching language learning over the past year.

The Great Language Experiment

For the past year or so, I have been trying to learn languages in burst – small, controlled missions. Some of them are documented here, such as my Turkish and Gaelic Missions. Some of them I haven’t blogged, such as my attempt last winter at learning Japanese. But much like the projects by Benny the Irish Polyglot, they were attempts at singular, focused, massive language immersions.

Though in every case I have learned a lot, they have all been partial failures for me. They weren’t failures however because of what I could or couldn’t accomplish in that time. They were failures because they weren’t what I wanted.

In each case, after the project, I moved on to another project and ended up forgetting a lot of what I learned (My Turkish is deplorable for what it was in October). What’s more, I always felt bad practicing other languages when I had one language that I was focusing on. It’s true that if you want to learn a language quickly, the fastest way is to focus on that one language with intensity. But I know myself and I burn out, get bored, or both. This even happens with languages I love. In some regards it happened with Gaelic, and I slowed down how much I wanted to work on it in the last month.

The main reason for this is because so much of the discussion about language learning right now is focused on getting to the goal: “I want to speak at this level”, “I want to have the ability to converse”, “I want to be able to read a book” etc. This is important, and there are times that this is the best way to approach a language. But not everyone is motivated by the end results. For people who don’t actually enjoy the process of learning a language (Benny is a self-admitted example of this), the GOAL-focused approach is probably very beneficial. If you are more excited at being ABLE to speak a language and what you will be able to DO with it, then by all means focus on a goal and work your butt off to get through the tough parts and make it to the end.

I on the other hand, like several other people I know, am more interested in the journey than the destination. I am more motivated by my experience doing something than by where I will end up. And when it comes to language learning, I love learning the language itself more than getting to some eventual “level” in that language.

For the past year, I have been experimenting with the goal oriented and focused approach, and I can definitively say it isn’t for me. I can also say that, though I have had some fun, I also don’t think my languages have progressed as much this last year as they have when I have taken a enjoy-the-journey approach to my languages.

Most of my languages I learned by simply enjoying them while I learned other languages on the side. It hasn’t been the fastest method, but it has been the most fun. And that’s why I learn languages, because I love learning languages. So it’s time for me to go back to that.

Adventure Time

This takes me to the present moment. My wife and I are currently packing up our apartment and moving all of our things into storage. In 5 days, we will be on a plane to Vietnam, where we plan to spend the next 3 months.

Do I intend to learn Vietnamese while we’re there? Absolutely! I will probably even dive in and obsessively learn it for a large part of the trip. And I will definitely blog about it. But am I setting a goal for it? Not in the least. I know that I’ll enjoy learning the language, as well as geeking out about the language, so I’ll be content with whatever level I end up at.

I also have several other languages that I care about (including Gaelic), that I intend to continue using, reading, studying, listening to, singing. Why? Because I like them. I’m also fine with taking my time to learn them if it means I go at a pace that is right for me. The point is, I’m going to go with the flow.

Do what you Love

It’s important that we do what we love. And doing what we love depends on taking the time and making the effort to be more self aware — we have to learn what we love.

What do you love? What motivates you to learn a language? Are you more goal oriented or experience oriented? Do you prefer to learn one language at a time or many? Does it matter to you if you have a community to speak with or not? Share with me in the comments.

Write Your Own Grammar: A Gaelic Case Study

Today I wanted to talk about something I think is pretty important for how to learn grammar, but that I never hear anyone talking about. And since today puts me I’m in the middle of a Scottish Gaelic Mission, I’ve decided to use my experience with Scottish Gaelic as an example.

That being said, the concepts apply to all languages, and I’m sure they will help everyone who’s trying to learn a language, especially when they encounter difficulties in the grammar.

Take Your Lessons with a Grain of Salt

Where would we be without our lovely language books, podcasts, and video courses? They are great! The distill a lot of information, making it easier for us to learn our languages. Although it is certainly possible to learn languages without materials, it is significantly harder. I vote that we keep the using the materials that work for us.

But all language materials have an inherent problem: they have to try and be “one size fits all.” Any language book, for example, is written to be purchased and used by as many people as possible. This means that it can’t address everyone’s particular needs or their particular learning styles. This is why a teacher is so helpful. A good teacher will learn what you need and present the material in a way that is best for you.

But the onus isn’t all on the teacher. As a learner, it’s your job to figure out what works best for you. It’s also your job to engage with what you are learning. And sometimes that means being critical of the very materials you are using to learn.

Now, I don’t mean criticizing them and tossing them aside. I mean looking to see if there is a better way that the lessons are presenting the information to you. And that means digging deeper.

There is no time this is more apparent than when you are learning grammar.

Languages are complicated. It’s a fact. That’s part of what makes it fun to learn them. But it’s also part of what makes it difficult. And a lot of that complexity is in the grammar.

A lot of the time, lessons will make you learn things in ways that seem overly complicated or dismissive because they don’t want to overload you with too much information at once. This usually comes in the form of “You will learn about this in a few units, but for now just do X.” Sometimes you aren’t told a rule will come, but grammar is taught like it’s a series of exceptions. While this is helpful at moving you along, sometimes it adds complexity where it isn’t really there.

At these times, I tend to ignore the grammar. In my experience learning languages and studying linguistics, if it’s being presented as something complicated, it rarely is complicated. So, I make a note that something seems fishy, and I keep my eye out for more clues as to what is going on.

Gaelic Definite Articles

There is a great example of this over complication of grammar in the vast majority of Scottish Gaelic materials. The Definite Article (or essentially “the”).

Early on in your Gaelic studies, you learn that the definite article is an. But you start learning that an changes to things like a’, am, an t-, and a few other forms, all in different situations based on the first letter of the next word, the gender of the next word, or if there is a preposition before an. Very quickly, it starts to look complicated and full of exceptions. What’s interesting is that it seems like all of the Gaelic material out there handles the definite article that way.

That’s when I start to smell something fishy going on!

Well, it usually takes several chapters before you come across an explanation: Noun cases. The 3 main cases in Gaelic are the Nominative, the Dative, and the Genitive. (There’s a Vocative as well, but it’s really irrelevant here, so we can ignore it). And if you understand that most prepositions take the Dative case, and some take the Genitive case, most of those frustrating exceptions turn out to be rules.

Great! After all the hard work, the truth has been revealed. Thank goodness for the grammar. Now you can learn what was really going on. They all lived happily ever after. Right?

Make Your Own Grammar

The problem is that not only do a lot of students finally learn about things like these noun cases already confused and believing there are awful exceptions. But in the case of Gaelic, these cases are presented as a list of rules. In other words you aren’t asked to engage with the material, merely memorize it. This is when your job as a learner is to look at what you now know and see if there is a better way to present it.

After a little effort of looking in different books, I was able to compile this chart of Scottish Gaelic Definite Articles:

Gàidhlig Definite Articles
Gàidhlig definite articles organized by case, number, and gender

It’s a little disconcerting that I would have to compile that chart, or even have to put effort into finding a chart like that. (Not that I’m biased or anything). Merely constructing a chart for myself makes it easier to look up what form is used when / if I get confused.

But why stop there? The chart doesn’t necessarily help me if I don’t understand how to learn from it. Sure, before the chart it was hard to keep track of how many sets of articles there were to remember. And mathematically speaking, there would appear to be 9. A lot different from the seemingly endless exceptions.

However, my job isn’t over. Humans are pattern oriented. It’s in large part because we see patterns so easily that we can learn languages at all. Therefore, I need to scrutinize this chart to look for patterns that might make things easier. Some of you may have already seen it, but here’s a color coded chart to clear things up (pardon the awful colors – I wanted to make sure it was easier for people with color blindness):

Gàidhlig Definite Articles - Color Coded
Gàidhlig Definite Articles – Color Coded

Wow! There are only 4 different sets of definite articles for me to learn?!? This grammar pattern went from extremely complicated to a LOT easier. Now I can go to work coming up with good mnemonics and sample sentences to help me learn these rules better.

How come this isn’t explained in the textbooks? Well, it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that this chart may work really well for me and not for you. But that’s the key! I needed to be willing to ignore what the lessons was telling me about the grammar until I could figure out a way to make it make sense to me. I didn’t just let the the books tell me what to learn.

How do you make your own grammars?

What are some ways you have reworked grammar from your various language learning materials until it made sense? And if you are a Gaelic learner/speaker, do you find this chart as helpful as I do?

How are your language goals coming along?

Let me know in the comments!

Gaelic Mission: Week 3 Update

Ceud mìle fàilte! (100,000 welcomes)

It’s early in my third week studying Scottish Gaelic, and this has already been a very different experience than I’ve had with other languages. I’m learning a lot about Gaelic, but I’m learning more about language learning.

There’s something extremely worthwhile about learning a less-commonly taught language. I think this is especially true for those interested in language pedagogy, language revitalization, or just improving their own learning processes. So even though I could write about details of my current stage in the language, I think it would be better to talk a little about what learning Scottish Gaelic is teaching me.

Community is Everything

The Celtic languages have very few speakers compared to the more commonly studied languages like English, French, and Spanish. According to Wikipedia, they total around 1 million speakers — French by comparison comes in at 80 million. And of those Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic is the 4th most spoken with just under 100,000 people in the world. It’s behind Welsh (~740,000), Breton (210,000), and Irish (140,000). And only about 60,000 of them are native speakers.

That’s not a lot of people. And 90% of them live in Scotland.

So finding a community who will support you in learning the language becomes that much more vital. I never had to make an effort to find French speakers. But I do spend more time and energy engaging with the local and global Gàidhlig speaking communities. Right now my main avenues for community with the language are a Seattle-based group that meets (most) Fridays to practice reading (which I found via a Google search, and have since managed to get to post their meetings on Meetup), and twitter, where I am a heavy user of #gaelic and #gàidhlig. And the process I’m developing for finding people and engaging communities will benefit me with any language, but I wouldn’t have tried with a language where it wasn’t so vital.

You’re Helping the Community

Many a polyglot has spoken about how speaking a person’s language can make them feel more welcome. But learning and speaking a minority language goes well beyond that, especially when it’s a language that’s even a minority language in its own country. A lot of Gaelic Speakers (about 1/3) aren’t natives. And they get encouraged by seeing other people trying to learn the language as well. You also help lend a feeling of legitimacy for people. All languages are worth speaking, but a lot of minority languages get bashed for not being “useful.” Often times community elders have memories of being chastised or even beaten for speaking those languages. But the more people that show an interest and really support the community, the more support community members have to be themselves and express a part of themselves that they may have been hiding.

A the same time, a wonderful thing about engaging the community of speakers of a minority language is that people are that much more excited that you are trying to learn the language and help keep it alive. People have been quick to help me find resources, correct me when I need it, and connect me with other enthusiasts. It’s significantly different from trying to speak Portuguese with a Brazilian who keeps switching to English with you.

This goes beyond just Gaelic, of course. I have learned a lot about the value of supporting other language learners (and speakers) — that’s part of why I started this blog and my polyglot group in the first place — but I’m coming to understand now that I can extend this same attitude to learners/speakers of all languages. Language learning isn’t just about speaking languages, it’s about community building.

You Have to Improve Your Processes

At first blush, this might seem like a drawback.

What? You mean I have to work harder?

Actually, no. You need to work smarter.

When we are taking on a language project for something that has been learned for decades by millions of non-natives we are flooded with material. A lot of that material is the result of many years of trial and error, of experimentation, and of market forces demanding better quality for better prices. Though no one course or system is perfect, we tend to believe that there’s a good reason why we are learning the things we are and in the order we are. And we tend to take this for granted.

My experience with Gaelic hasn’t been the same. I’ve been studying using the Teach Yourself: Gaelic and the Colloquial: Scottish Gaelic books. They are fine books, don’t get me wrong. And I would recommend either of them to a beginner of the Scottish Gaelic language. But they aren’t great.

I don’t think this is entirely their fault. It’s the fault of the market being smaller, them having to adapt a lot of the material to heritage speakers who are looking to learn different things than people from outside of the community, and from them having great immersion schools that a lot of learners use to study. This just means two things:

  1. It’s good to take each lesson with a grain of salt
  2. It’s really important to think critically about the languages and experiment with different ways to learn the material

But this isn’t really any different that with any other language. We merely get lulled into a false trust with the more commonly studied languages. Truly, we should be experimenting and challenging all of the materials we find. And when we discover something helpful, we should be sharing it with the community.

For this reason, I will start writing posts with language specific tips, materials, and general experiences from here on out (in addition to my updates and general language learning posts). I hope to use these posts to help other learners with new ways to learn their languages.

What about you?

We’re all in this together, and I want to know what you’re experiencing with your language projects. Is there anything you’re having a hard time with? How are you engaging with your language learning communities? Do you experiment with your processes? Let me know in the comments.

Gaelic in 3 Months

For the next 3 months, I’m going to learn Scottish Gaelic (otherwise just known as Gaelic, as Irish Gaelic is more commonly referred to as Irish). It’s been a long time coming now. I’ve flirted with the language on and off for a while, and I’ve never given myself a big enough or solid enough goal to make it happen. But I have a dream of becoming a Goidelophone [a speaker of a Goidelic language], and there’s no time like the present.

Why Scottish Gaelic?

There are a multitude of reasons:

  1. It’s a beautiful language
  2. I love Celtic / Highlands culture, music, arts, etc.
  3. My ancestors were Scottish
  4. I would like to visit the Highlands & Hebrides
  5. There are Gaelic speaking populations here in the Americas (Canada)

… to name a few!

I definitely have intrinsic motivation to learn this language.

What’s the end goal?

3 months is a long time, especially as some of my language learning projects often go. What am I hoping to achieve by the beginning of February?

I  would like to reach a B2 level in Gaelic, have little to no difficulty listening to programs on BBC Alba, and hold a 15-minute conversation with a native entirely in Gaelic. That’s a tall order, and I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think it’s always best to aim high, especially when you are motivated to meet your aims!

What will my challenges be?

Some challenges are always unpredictable. In this case, I suspect the biggest challenge I will have is finding conversation partners. Gaelic is spoken by less than 100,000 people, and it’s not every day that you meet someone who you can speak with (unless you live near the Gaeltacht). Even on sites like iTalki there are fewer speakers. I’ll do my best to engage them, but this is likely the biggest challenge I will have to overcome, even beyond the complex grammar and phonetics.

For this reason, if you have any suggestions or know of anyone that can help, please leave a comment or reach out to me on Twitter!

What resources will I use?

I have so many Gaelic resources already, that it’s hard to decide. As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I have both the Teach Yourself: Gaelic and the Colloquial: Scottish Gaelic books, as well as some poetry and music. I think that’s a fine place to start. I may even use both TY and Colloquial side by side, since I have sound files for them both and it will give me some variety. I also intend to actively learn Julie Fowlis songs to sing.

All of the new words, phrases, idioms, etc. will go into flash cards.

Real flash cards.

My Turkish experience showed me that going analog with flashcards makes a huge difference, and I think that’s how I should start.

Though I don’t have a video to start my mission today (I am sick with a cold and don’t think it would be a very good video), I will be posting articles and videos along the way to mark my progress.

What about you?

Are there any language projects you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but you’ve been holding off? How could you make a mission that motivates you to embrace that language? How are your language projects going in general? Let me know in the comments!