by Òmar Bhochanan and Richard Gwynallen
There’s nothing like immersing yourself in an experience to give you the most intimate and profound understanding of whatever it is you take on, be it a culture, music, writing, or anything you are trying to learn, including a language.
If you’ve become excited or even passionate about Gàidhlig (aka, Scottish Gaelic), you’ll want to dive headlong into your study, communicate with your teacher, listen to Gàidhlig songs, and scour the internet for resources. But most of us are isolated learners, and don’t have the opportunity for an immersive experience right in our own town. You can’t go to a céilidh on the West Side one weekend and on the East Side the next weekend. You can’t go down to the pub for a conversation with friends. And most of us can’t afford to leave for a summer to live in a Gàidhlig-speaking community.
It would be an ideal learning scenario if your spouse, significant other, or other family member were learning along with you. You have a built-in conversation buddy. Or you have children who you want to grow up with the language, and you will be speaking with them (or at least at them) as you learn. But most of us don’t have that ideal situation.
Even if you live in Nova Scotia or Scotland you may well still have to make a concerted effort to create an immersive experience. Even more so for the rest of us.
Yet, there is no doubt that immersion in a language facilitates faster learning. We are wired to desire emotional and social connection, connections that both encourage and reinforce our learning, and provide feedback loops on our progress. When we find ourselves in an environment where the language we are studying, and that we are already passionate about, is our only means of connecting to others – say a foreign country, or an immersion retreat – we are much more motivated to learn it.
So, what are we in this linguistic diaspora to do? We are left to create our own immersive experience, preferably with the help of the teacher or institution with which we are learning the language. Schools and other institutions often refer to the time you spend with the language outside of formal classes as language engagement.
So, how does one immerse in a language if you are learning in an area where you do have access to more speakers? You speak, right? Certainly you speak with fellow learners, but you also speak with fluent and native speakers – on the streets, on public transportation, in shops, at lunch, at the pub, and all the other places you might encounter or arrange encounters with other speakers. But you also read signs, newspapers, and advertising. You hear music and singing. In other words, you encounter every aspect of the culture – listening, speaking, reading, and writing. These are the categories of engaging with the language we want to explore in this article. In each case, regular use is key.
Make your language experiences a daily part of your life, but set goals you can achieve, then stretch those goals. We know someone who studied and practiced four hours a day, and he worked full time and was married with four children. Not everyone can devote that much time, and not all families are as supportive, but you can always find some time to make the language an active part of your daily life. Remember, you started learning Gàidhlig because you loved it. It should stay exciting and enjoyable.
Lýdia Machová says: “You don’t need some special talent or a “’language gene,’ ” Listen to her advice in this TED talk.
We cannot overstate the importance of listening. Lots of listening! Listening is learning. Listening is participating. Don’t undervalue the time you spend listening. Babies are bathed in language for years before they utter a word. You need to get your ear used to hearing the sounds. Tune your ear to the rhythm of Gàidhlig.
Technology today offers opportunities that didn’t exist for most new Gàidhlig learners 20 years ago. In fact, online resources have increased significantly in just the last ten years.
You should be able to find many recordings explicitly meant for teaching but it is important to listen to natural speech in different settings. Play recordings of native speakers in the background while doing dishes, driving, walking, making things with your hands, doing housework, etc. Listen to Gàidhlig radio, or recorded stories and interviews, or singing. You don’t need to catch every word, you need to surrender to the rhythm. Let the sounds wash over you without grasping. Trust that it’s going in through osmosis rather than conscious effort . Your brain subconsciously imbibes sounds and repetitive words and phrases, and the rhythm of the language seeps in.
Perhaps you need recordings of specific words or phrases. See what your teacher offers. If you don’t have a teacher, you could pay a native or fluent speaker to make an audio recording for you, or find them on Learn Gàidhlig.
Songs invite you to participate and that makes them particularly useful. Many have a chorus that keeps repeating so you can eventually start singing along.
Television shows and films are also good for listening to dialogue, picking up words and phrases, and colloquial expressions. However, they can be challenging because the dialogue is fast and filled with idiomatic phrases and slang. In the beginning, you might try using the subtitles, then turning them off as you gain confidence.
Don’t filter out dialects with which you are not familiar. Listen to as many dialects as you can, from all over. Attune your ear to the different ways of speaking. Dialectical variation is a richness, not a burden. You only need to be able to say it one way, but if you can understand it a few different ways, you can converse with Gàidhlig speakers from anywhere.
Some of your listening will likely be passive. As we’ve suggested here, you’ll be listening to things while engaged in some other activity, but you need to balance passive listening with active listening. Active listening requires that you pay attention to everything. You can take note of words that you don’t know and look them up in a dictionary.
Look online and find texts to read that you will enjoy. It shouldn’t feel like a boring task. It should inform and give you pleasure as you grow in your language skills. Read news, find stories or books meant for your learning level, possibly childrens’ books, that you can order.
Take note of new words and phrases that you think you can use in your own conversations, explore their meaning, and look for examples of how they are used in context. Then start including them in your conversations and writing.
Using the Gàidhlig you have at present to write will challenge you to increase your vocabulary and encourage you to think in Gàidhlig. Try keeping a journal to record your daily experiences and thoughts. It doesn’t have to be complex. Just start expressing your experiences and thoughts in Gàidhlig. If you have the chance, exchange email messages with classmates and other speakers.
Of course, the most important way to learn a language is by using it outside of class. Engaging in the language with a native or fluent speaker will build your language skills, give you feedback on your progress, and strengthen your confidence.
This can prove challenging for some people. We are reluctant to try out our skills for fear of making mistakes. This is a worry that will impede your progress, and shouldn’t stop you. Will you make mistakes? You will certainly make mistakes. But without speaking and making mistakes you won’t progress quickly. What if you misunderstand or misstate something? Not a problem! Real life is filled with misunderstandings, but they can lead to opportunities for learning in context. If you are emotionally engaged with the exchange, those missteps create authentic learning experiences.
Engaging with other learners will also keep your language skills active and developing. Make friends with your classmates. Perhaps you can meet online or in-person outside class.
Finally, speak to yourself around the house. Speak to your pets, or others in your house, even if they aren’t learning the language. Speak to yourself on walks. Take hikes in different environments, like forests or by rivers, to allow yourself to speak about different landscapes.
Prompt your memory for what you are learning. Make flash cards. Label things in the house in Gàidhlig.
Repeat by yourself. Be a parrot. Say the words out loud, again, and again, and again. Perhaps you are using Duolingo to learn. Even though Duolingo doesn’t need you to say the words, do it anyway. It takes time to stretch your vocal cords and retrain your lips, tongue and mouth as an adult learner to make sounds you maybe never made before. The more time you can practice the better.
Start to replace everyday things you say with the Gàidhlig phrases. Once you learn something, use it. As we mentioned for writing, just start expressing your experiences and thoughts in Gàidhlig as best you can.
Make it fun for yourself. Post vocabulary for use in the kitchen on pantry doors. Use it while you cook. Acquire some games like Uno and play in Gàidhlig. Bring other learners in on games.
In the end, love for the language will take you a long way.
Video and audio recordings
An Drochaid Eadarainn
Highland Village Museum videos (Facebook)
Tobar an Dualchais
Cainnt Mo Mhàthair
Gaelic NS Youtube Chanel
Colaisde na Gàidhlig
Resources for reading
Two short Gaelic folktale books by Jason Bond – Intermediate level
Òmar Bhochanan | Amber Buchanan is a partner and consultant in Inside Out, a Gàidhlig and yoga teacher, a weaver, and a Gàidhlig activist. She lives on the Atlantic Ocean in Mi’kma’ki | Cape Breton Island. Amber teaches Gàidhlig language and traditional cultural practices, in community, at Baile Nan Gàidheal | Highland Village Museum, and with Sgoil Gàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir.
Richard Gwynallen is a co-founder of Sgoil Gàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir and a Gàidhlig learner. He has worked in urban community development, forest conservation, and other community and political organizing projects. He is a researcher, writer, and genealogist living in Baltimore, Maryland.