Tuesday, 1 June 2010


One of the nice things about learning a language is that the more of them you learn, the easier it gets to acquire another one---as my polylingual EU translator friend Charles proves. He speaks Maltese, English, French, German, Estonian, Greek, and Icelandic fluently, which makes me want to spit. ('We hate it when our friends become successful', as Morrissey caterwauled.)

What is fluency? I'm sure there are learned sociolinguistic definitions, but a working one for me consists of three parts. First, you need to understand 80-100% of what is said to you (or to which you listen) at normal speed, immediately. Second, you need to be able to use all the grammatical and syntactical constructions which the language offers, and as a result to be able to say anything you want to say, even if you have to use a slightly roundabout way to get there. Third, you need to have a working, tip-of-the-tongue vocabulary of about five thousand words, even though in English you might easily know six times that number. On top of this, you need a working grasp of idiom and register.

Language learning goes in fits and starts. Ten years ago, I didn't know any Welsh at all, and I didn't begin a serious attempt with the modern language until I was about 25, having been exclusively concerned with medieval Welsh and exam-passing up until that point. During this transitional period, I made a huge number of often comic mistakes, in which I deployed a medieval word instead of the modern one. I used teg for 'beautiful', for example; this meant 'fair' in Middle Welsh (in both senses) but now means only 'impartial' in the modern language. The landscape of the Gower is, I can assure you, extremely impartial. I lost my 'gauntlets' instead of my 'gloves', and once memorably asked a senior Welsh academic if I could 'build him a coffin' instead of 'make a request', due to a misunderstanding about the verb archaf.

After a warm-up period, I'm normally nattering away happily at the Eisteddfod, but it's hard to maintain fluency in a language that I speak for fifteen minutes a week plus one week a year. Nevertheless, I read a lot in Welsh (always the news, for example) and listen to the radio a lot in the background. The best part of a bottle of wine helps to free the tongue, I find.

I mention all this because I'm currently teaching myself Scottish Gaelic. I have studied it in the past, and published a small article on poetry by learners of the language a couple of years ago, but am basically mute in it. It's interesting, therefore, to go through the same process as I went through with Welsh but hugely speeded up, because I'm making more effort. As with Welsh, there is a background level of passive vocabulary knowledge, because if nothing else I have been learning/reading/teaching medieval Irish since I was 22. So an awful lot of the words are basically familiar, often with a slightly changed sense and considerably changed spelling. But active speaking ability is quite another thing, problematized by Gaelic's complicated pronunciation rules, which are dismayingly askance to those of Irish. Yes, I know that basically yer actual sound-system is much the same, with palatal consonants, glide vowels etc, but the fine-grained detail is often really quite different.

Colloquial Gaelic, by Katherine M. Spadaro, glosses over this problem completely, so much so that I don't understand how a real beginner lacking a linguistics background could come out of the course with any real ability to speak the language. Major pronunciation rules are not explained, such as the instrusive 'sh' that appears in lots of words in the cluster -rt. Tha sin ceàrt, 'That's right', is pronounced 'ha shin kyarsht', for example. Now, there's no problem understanding this from the linguistic, phonological perspective, but really it might have been mentioned. The result of this silence on Spadaro's part is that the learner without access to a native speaker is never going to be able to pronounce any word that doesn't appear on the CD at some point or other. I suppose this is inevitable with a language like Gaelic, with its complex vowels and long, consonant-filled words. The beginner would have to listen to the CD extremely carefully to grasp that cuideachd, 'also, as well', is pronounced 'KOOjukh-k', a situation quite different to Welsh, where the spelling system of the language reflects the phonology extremely well.

But, dear reader, I am getting there. I've finished Spadaro and Teach Yourself Gaelic, and am working through Roddy Maclean’'s brilliant '“Letters to Gaelic Learners”', six hundred or so archived mini-essays from the BBC on all manner of subjects. I listen to the letter first before going back to read the text, inserting into it any pronunciations which seem surprising, and writing new vocabulary down in a ledger. By doing five of these a day, I'm beginning to absorb the rhythms of the language and develop the ability to decipher it aurally, as well as putting sentences together. I'm feeling rather smug at the moment because I've just this minute managed to understand almost all of a piece about Gregor Mendel and the genetics of pea-plants without looking at the written text. But pride goeth before a fall...


Matthew Roy said...

I've gotten to that point where trying to read my Gaelic Bible doesn't give me a migraine. So many silent letters. Do you have any suggestions for wrangling those 5000 vocabulary words (especially with Gaelic's two genders and case rules and the rules for the article based on the noun's first letters)? It starts looking like more of a math problem than a euphonious language. Good luck.

Bo said...

Well, for me, I usually know the gender from Old Irish anyway (unless it's a former neuter). I started by learning the vocab in the back of 'Colloquial Gaelic', then that in 'Teach yourself Gaelic' (big overlap of course) then moved on to reading Rory Maclean's letters, writing down any words I didn't know.

Suem said...

As someone who is atrocious at languages, I am again impressed.

However, after revising my son's biology GCSE with him, I have reminded myself of the basics of Gregor Mendel and his bloody pea plants with their red and white flowers and smooth and wrinkled peas.

My son has decided that he is a product of largely recessive alleles, and this is further justification to blame us for all his problems in life.
(I won't show him the Morrissey clip, he already has that mindset!)

Anonymous said...

Go n-éirí leat, a chara, ach dá mbeifeá san Áit Eile, Ollscoil Dhroichid an Chaim, b'fhéidir leat freastal ar ranganna Gaeilge saor in aisce!

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