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!

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