How to learn gaelic


learn Irish gaelic, Scottish gaelic, Manx, Welsh…


strategies to learn any celtic language


So many languages, so little time …


For those searching for their roots, this blog will introduce you to a new way of thinking about languages. Coming from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and their rich history of a ‘native studies’ department in the 60s to their present day Indigenous studies program, the importance of language to a people is noted as paramount.
Can we look back to language and rediscover the traditions and culture of the Celtic people? Yes! Help us here by revealing your secrets of learning any celtic language. To start, give us your opinion about Tim’s blog below!


As you will see, he references Aladair MacCallum, the Gaelic Development Officer for the Scottish Parliament: “There are many reasons for learning Gaelic. In the first place, it gives you more understanding of Scottish place names and of Scotland in general. For example, I grew up in Lanarkshire where I was surrounded by Gaelic place names such as Gartcosh, Airdrie, Gartsherrie, Kirkintilloch and Cumbernauld.


Since learning Gaelic, I feel more Scottish and more connected to my local area. Many employment opportunities are also available through learning Gaelic. There are currently more Gaelic posts than there are people to fill them – teaching, translation, language development, and many others. If you don’t want to work in the Gaelic sector, there will be more and more jobs in the future involving service delivery though the medium of Gaelic rather than working in language development.


The most important thing about learning Gaelic is that you will contribute to the revival of Gaelic. Fluent learners add to the demand for services through the medium of Gaelic and to the diversity of the Gaelic community. More importantly, transmission of the language from generation to generation in the family has more or less stopped. As young native speakers are now so few in number, Gaelic learners have a crucial role to play to ensure that Gaelic is spoken in the family and in the home once again.”


How to learn Gaelic


Air a chur ann le Mill a h-Uile Rud 28 am Faoilleach 2009 aig 4:30pm


It is a sad fact, but most people who set out to learn Gaelic fail, and that is a shame because Gaelic is actually an easy language to learn. I’m no rocket scientist, the truth is, I am really slow at learning languages, but I learned to speak Gaelic fluently and so can you. Here I want to share some tips and tricks that will save you lots of time and will help you learn to speak Gaelic as fast as possible. I promise, you can learn Gaelic and it really isn’t that hard, you just have to know the tricks. There are some common pitfalls you need to avoid as well and I want to pass this information on to other learners so more and more people can be successful at learning Gaelic. If you are trying to learn Gaelic or thinking about learning Gaelic, please read on:


Learning Gaelic is Not Like Learning French or Spanish


Learning a small, local language like Gaelic is fundamentally different from learning a massive, international language like French or Spanish. Most people come to grief when they try to learn Gaelic because they approach it like French or Spanish, and you just can’t learn Gaelic that way. I will start by outlining the three basic strategies you will need to follow to learn Gaelic to fluency. These strategies flow naturally from the very different approach you will need to take in order to learn a small, local language like Gaelic and I will outline that different approach for you as we go along.


Three Key Strategies


1) The first key strategy is to get yourself on the right course, a course with a carefully structured syllabus that is designed to bring you to fluency. If you live in Scotland you can find dozens of weekend courses, evening courses and week-long courses and you can take these courses until you are blue in the face and pushing up daises and you will never learn Gaelic to fluency. These courses aren’t pointless (see guideline 2) but they are dangerous. They are often poorly taught, poorly designed and while they are good for introducing you to a little Gaelic, if they are all you do, they will doom you to forever drift around from course to course as a ‘permanent learner,’ fluency always out of your grasp.


Luckily there are a number of solid, well-designed courses on offer these days, all with the aim of bringing their students to fluency. The first step to fluency in Gaelic is to make one of these courses the backbone of your Gaelic-learning project.


a) An Cùrsa-comais. This is the course Sìne and I did. Ruairidh (Deke) from Oi Polloi did it as well and Ruairidh (Roddie) from Atomgevitter is starting on it this fall. It is a full-time, year-long course offered by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye and Lewis Castle College on Lewis. Most people don’t have the time to do a full-time, residential course, but if you have the opportunity, this is the best option without a doubt. Also, your Gaelic needs to be at an intermediate level before you can start the course, but the Cùrsa-inntigidh (below) can get you there.


b) An Cùrsa-inntrigidh. This is the distance course offered by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and it leads into the Cùrsa-adhartais. Combined, these two courses are designed to bring their students to fluency and since they are phone and internet based courses, you can do them from anywhere in the world. By itself, the Cùrsa-inntrigidh can also be used to qualify for the Cùrsa-comais (above).


c) Ùlpan. This new course is being offered by CLI throughout Scotland. Based on the highly successful courses for Hebrew in Israel and Welsh in Wales, these courses will be run with specially-trained tutors following a proven syllabus.


d) TIP or Total Immersion Plus. These courses are offered throughout Scotland and Nova Scotia and are based on the Total Physical Response method that is used successfully to teach dozens of languages.


2) The second key strategy is to take charge of your own language learning. If you want to learn a mega-language like Spanish or French, you can be quite passive about it in the early stages. You can sit in class for a few years until you feel a little confident and then book a trip to Madrid or Paris and force yourself to learn the language by throwing yourself into a situation where you have to speak it. You cant learn Gaelic or other smaller languages like that. You have to be much more aggressive right from the start.


There is nowhere on the planet where you have to speak Gaelic. All Gaelic speakers are bilingual and will speak to you in English if you are shy about it. Right from the start you have to grab your Gaelic learning by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Aggressively seek out every possible learning activity in your area and add these to your core course. Do a little bit of Gaelic every day. Learning any language as an adult is not about a big heroic effort, but little efforts each day over a sustained period. These learning activities could include:


a) Those weekend, evening and week-long courses I trashed in Key Strategy 1. As I said above, they are not useless, far from it. I have taken these sorts of courses over the years and I got a lot out of them. If they are used as supplements, they can be quite helpful – they just won’t do as a core course.


b) Radio nan Gaidheal. You can get RnG all over Scotland now almost 24/7, and on the internet you can listen to it around the world. Put it on in your car and listen to it on the way to work. Listen to it as you do the dishes. Listen to it in the morning as you dress. Don’t worry if all you understand in the beginning is, “Blah blah blah agus blah blah blah ach…” if you are listening, you are learning the sounds. Every day you will understand a little bit more.


c) Litir do Luchd-ionnsachaidh. This is a great program on RnG that is available on the internet as well. This is a ‘letter’ written by Ruairidh MacIlleathain each week, aimed at intermediate learners, designed to showcase and explain key grammar, idioms and vocabulary. I used to read these letters over and over, listen to them, and read them out loud until I had them almost memorized. Invaluable. Ruairidh MacIlleathain also publishes An Litir Bheag aimed at more beginning learners.


d) The local Gaelic choir. I know, this is coming from a punker, but honestly, even if you don’t go for the music particularly, the language learning you can get out of a good choir-master is worth it, particularly if the choir master is a bit of a drill sergeant about pronunciation, which most of them are. Gaelic speakers are kind of like the French in that they are sticklers about pronunciation. If you get the sounds right in the beginning, you are well on your way to sounding really fluent in the end. I am still correcting mistakes I made in pronunciation early on and I wish I had spent more time on this in the beginning. But don’t make the mistake of just mouthing the sounds though. Take the songs home, get out your dictionary and grammar books and figure them out. Traditional Gaelic songs are great storehouses of loads of good idiom and vocabulary. If you know what the songs mean, all those words and phrases you learn in the songs are also yours to use in your dayly conversations.


3) The third key strategy follows naturally from the second and will be your most important strategy both as a learner and as a fluent speaker later on because it goes to the heart of what it means to speak a small, local language: speak Gaelic at every possible opportunity. That may seem obvious but it is more challenging than it sounds. As I explained above, all Gaelic speakers are also fluent English speakers and will speak English with you unless you make an effort to speak Gaelic with them. Your success as a Gaelic learner and your success later on as a fluent speaker will depend on your ability to create a network of Gaelic-speaking friends and family around you in your life.


Virtually all Gaelic speakers will be very happy to speak Gaelic with you but you will need to handle this carefully. Most native speakers are not used to speaking Gaelic with people they haven’t known for years and years. They may not be sure how to handle learners. They may have encountered some beginning-level learners, but few or no fluent learners. They may keep speaking English because they are trying to be polite. Also, not all native speakers are necessarily very confident about their Gaelic outside of very specific social situations. They might have a hard time understanding your accent or a learner’s vocabulary which may be different from the vocabulary in their local dialect.


Other learners are often no easier. They may suffer from a crippling lack of confidence. They may not understand how important it is to speak the language to learn it or they may be afraid of making mistakes or embarrassed by their lack of progress. In all cases the best approach is to patiently and non-judgmentally come back to Gaelic. If someone really seems reluctant, leave it for a bit and then try a little Gaelic again later on. Whatever you do, don’t shame people for their language choices and don’t correct peoples’ grammar unless they ask for help. If you keep coming back to Gaelic with a positive attitude and a smile on your face, you will eventually convert almost everyone to speaking Gaelic with you.


Gaelic speakers are human beings and so there are a few jerks out there who will be nasty to you if you try and speak Gaelic with them. Unfortunately, language learning can leave you feeling kind of vulnerable and so this nasty 1% can permanently discourage some learners. Don’t let them. Charge ahead and speak Gaelic. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t even think about the mistakes. There is no way past this vulnerable period but straight through it. If you put off speaking, you will just put off the problem. With a smaller language, you don’t gain confidence and then speak. It works the other way around. You speak to gain confidence.

Building up these Gaelic-speaking networks of friends and family is not only the best way to learn Gaelic, it is also how we as fluent speakers get the chance to use the language, and finally and most importantly, it is also how we keep Gaelic going and growing as a language. There is nowhere for Gaelic like Paris for French or Madrid for Spanish. We have to make Gaelic happen in our lives or it doesn’t happen at all.


Gaelic is so cool and so fun to speak. And Gaelic needs as many new speakers as possible. Gaelic needs you! I really wish you the best in learning Gaelic. It’s not hard. I did it and it was one of the best things I ever did. I am always thankful that I took the time and that I made the effort to learn Gaelic. It pays off every day. You can do it too! Post your questions or reactions to this here and good luck.


Ròc na Gàidhlig, Tim




Most of this advice comes from my own experience learning Gaelic, but I also consulted the results of research Alasdair ‘Falt Fada’ MacCaluim did for his PhD. Mòran taing Aladair chòir, ròcair meatailt a tha thu!


MacCaluim, Alasdair (2002) Periphery of the periphery? Adult Learners of Scottish Gaelic and Reversal of Language Shift. PhD Thesis. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Also, note two other opinions about Gaelic from the site


Susie Hardy – Deputy Head of Lifelong Learning at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig


“I began learning Gaelic over twenty years ago. Skye was very important to me, the beautiful views, the culture, the history and something else which is still hard to explain – a strong sense that it was the right thing for me to do personally. Everyone has their own particular reasons for learning Gaelic – music (Runrig, choirs, Mods); place names and hill walking; genealogy; it is a long list. The world is a very different one for learners now, and they have a crucial role to play in strengthening and ensuring the survival of Gaelic. There are more learning materials and support than ever before: on the internet, radio, television, distance learning courses, books, magazines (such as the Gaelic Learners’ magazine Cothrom), and the old barriers to learning no longer apply.


“Perhaps the most encouraging thing happening in Gaelic today is Gaelic Medium Education for children. Only five years ago, it was nothing more than a dream to contemplate a Gaelic medium Secondary school such as there is in Glasgow now, and then there are the all-Gaelic primary schools which are beginning to appear throughout Scotland. As a result of this more and more parents are wanting to learn Gaelic. They are realising what a great opportunity Gaelic education is for their children, and they are recognising the value and incredible richness of the Gaelic language and culture.


“There is no doubt that I have been fortunate over the years, not only have I got a job with an organisation where I can use Gaelic, but through working for Clì Gàidhlig and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, I have had the chance to encourage learners. There are plenty of new job opportunities for young, and older, Gaelic speakers. Teachers can be trained to move to Gaelic medium teaching if they want. New developments in the Gaelic media are also creating chances for Gaelic speakers, and attracting people to Gaelic and its culture and history. All of this shows a vibrant and rich culture which is thriving in the 21st century.”


Donald John MacIntyre – Director of Clì Gàidhlig


“There has never been a better time to learn Gàidhlig. In September 2008 the new BBC Alba channel was launched and viewing figures have been impressive to say the least. Gàidhlig Medium Education is on a high and the new Gàidhlig schools in Glasgow and Inverness are thriving. With the setting up of the Gàidhlig Act for Parliament and introduction of the National Plan for Gàidhlig, Public Bodies and National organisations are now working on Gàidhlig Plans to support the language grow in the workplace and elsewhere.”


Why Should I Learn? “A number of people choose to learn the language simply because they enjoy a new challenge. You may never have considered learning Gàidhlig before, so why not give it a go. You will notice the language is alive in a large number of communities across Scotland and beyond. Learning or speaking the language will open doors to a number of new experiences.”


Culture “Are you passionate about being Scottish but have never had the opportunity to discover Scotland’s other language. Or possibly moved to Scotland and would like to experience the unique culture that comes with the language. Why not enrol on a Gàidhlig Course and fulfil your passion for the cultural and social aspects of the language.”

Work “I would expect Gaelic to become a more widely used language as far as business is concerned. A number of people are now attending Gaelic Classes in order to improve their career development opportunities. Could the opportunity to speak Gaelic enhance your chances of getting work?”


Family “Are your children learning Gaelic at school? Would you like to be able to speak Gaelic with them and assist them with school homework? There are a number of opportunities arising for parents to learn Gaelic while their children are at school or nursery. Why not give it a go, and learn the language with your children.”


I have not got the time “Your time is valuable and learning Gaelic will take up a fair bit of it, but we’re sure it will be an investment worth makiing. Remember that Gaelic will: get you a better job; help you learn with your children; help you learn about the history and heritage of your area.”


Too old? “No, you are never too old to learn a language. Active mind, active heart.”

I don’t know where to go “There are many websites which give information on where to go and also a number of organisations who would be willing to give guidance on the best way ahead for your particular needs.”


Confidence “Remember, we all stumble, every one of us. That’s why it is good to join a group and experience the social aspect of learning too. Your fellow learners will be there to guide you through those first few steps.”


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