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.

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