Sunday, 8 February 2015

We need to talk

I’m a bit rubbish when it comes to academia. I sat two A-levels at school, and did appallingly in my mock exams. In French I got 33%. Oops. My poor school performance encouraged me to do a bunk from school and push off to the Auvergne region of France where I had French friends. I spent many happy weeks ‘en famille’ completely immersed in French culture, went back to England, sat the A level exam, and got an A.

I did a similar thing with Dutch. A 12 week Total Immersion Programme including a two week stint at the University of Leuven in Belgium during which time I stayed with a Flemish family. During the 12 week course, English was banned after week two. If you didn’t know a word in Dutch, you weren’t allowed to ask for it in English. So if, for example, you wanted to know the Dutch for ‘cup’, you didn’t ask the tutor: ‘What is ‘cup’ in Dutch?’ You would instead ask, in Dutch: ‘Hoe zeg je in het Nederlands…waneer je drinkt tee of koffie…wat neem je het drankje in?’ (‘How do you say in Dutch…when you drink tea or coffee…what you put the drink in?’)

Sadly for us Gaelic learners, these options aren’t easy to come by. Gaeland does not exist. As I explained in the entry ‘Why is an Englishman Learning Gaelic?’, many native Gaelic speakers are reticent to speak with learners. Plus, unlike French and Dutch people who may not be able to speak English (although rare with the Dutch), practically everyone who speaks Gaelic also speaks English. It is therefore exceedingly easy for either side to lapse into English at the first hurdle. I reckon it must be easier to stop smoking or stick to a strict chocolate-free diet than keep a conversation in Gaelic when you don’t know a word or phrase.

To my knowledge, the only place where ‘Gaeland’ exists is Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Scotland’s Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye. Here, students are contractually obliged to speak Gaelic, and it’s a wonderful enclave. However, even here, the laws of the land dictate that Health and Safety Notices are repeated in English, and anything crucially important to safety or welfare has to be communicated in English to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation.

If you’re not attending Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on a full-time course or a short course during the Easter or summer holidays, where do you go to speak Gaelic?

‘Speaking’ is the one biggest challenge that most learners cite when quizzed. After all, thanks to the likes of, BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal, and BBC Alba, we can surround ourselves with Gaelic that we can absorb on conscious and subconscious levels. One thing media cannot address though is being able to call upon the grammar and vocabulary in our minds and make instant, grammatically correct, and appropriate sentences. Either we take five minutes to think of the right words, draw a blank, or bungle our way through in really bad Gaelic which eventually forces the conversation to switch to English.


I’m no expert, but I reckon that everyday stuff you need for instant use is kept in a different part of the brain to the longer-term, lesser-used stuff. It’s a bit like keeping the coats you use daily hung up by the front door so you can grab one as you leave the house, but your snowboarding jacket or your bike leathers are hanging upstairs in the wardrobe. You use them less so it takes you longer to get to them. In a cranial sense I look upon this as ‘wiring’. I need to get the wiring into place that’s going to instantly transmit that Gaelic knowledge in my head directly to my mouth without spending too much time going through the slow process of conscious reflection. The only way to get that wiring into place is to speak. Make mistakes, but keep speaking.

I’ve got an idea or two of how to get speaking when you're 500 miles from Scotland. Stay tuned!

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