Celtic designs on a stone sphere, evoking Old Irish culture. Image from FreeImages.com

Sengoidelc : Old Irish (and More Besides)

I stumbled across a rather special book this week. It’s David Stifter’s very thorough introduction to Old Irish, Sengoidelc, pleasingly still in print, and approaching its 20th birthday.

I sought it out first and foremost as a language-learning gap-filling exercise. I’ve spent some time with Scottish Gaelic, and a bit (well, a lot) less with Irish. Exploring Old Irish seemed like a good way to get to know their common history, especially given how helpful etymological pathfinding can be with multiple language projects. I’ve also come across satisfying snippets of Old Irish writing, like the brilliantly feline Pangur Bán, and hoped it might open the door to similar treats.

Old Irish – and the Rest

What I didn’t expect from an Old Irish primer was the wealth of detail about Proto-Indo-European. It makes sense, of course; for linguists studying PIE, Old Irish is an important source of evidence from a relatively less well-known ancient descendant – at least compared to, say, Greek and Latin. But it’s positively packed with background info on PIE parts of speech, and their development into the Celtic branch. All in all, it’s a fantastically erudite book written in a disarmingly friendly tone, helped along by some very cute cartoons of sheep.

The author even provides plenty of comparative examples in German. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given his connection to the University of Vienna. But the additional language gives a further handle on potentially difficult concepts for those who know a little. It’s the ultimate in triangulation (and you know I love that).

If your language interests intersect in the same way, Sengoidelc is heartily recommended. I’m just annoyed I didn’t find it sooner!

Learning Places : Banff and Macduff Bay

Learning Places

Do you ever find yourself learning the same things in the same places? Not intentionally, but somehow drifting into the same languages, the same subjects, according to where you are?

I’ve been on a well overdue parental visit on the north-east coast again this week after a hectic few months. And I’ve noticed that something of a pattern has emerged. Despite having a gloriously diverse language library to pick and choose from, and well-made general dabbling intentions, I always go for a Gaelic book while I’m staying here.

Ambient Inspiration

Maybe it’s seeing the mountains of East Sutherland far across the water, near which Nancy Dorian researched the sadly moribund local dialects of Gaelic, that prompts me. Or perhaps it’s just that quintessentially Scottish coastal mix of sea, sky and moorland that gets me in the mood. Whatever it is, I’m more likely to settle down with Gaelic here than in any of my other favourite reading places.

Places for learning: Banff and Macduff Bay

Banff and Macduff Bay, across from which the hills of Sutherland can just be made out

There’s a potential downside to that, according to some educational psychologists. Research into context-dependent memory suggests that material learnt exclusively in one environment may be harder to recall in others.

But the flip-side of that is the use of wider memories as triggers for learnt material. In my case, think of home, remember your Gaelic.

The choice of book says a lot, too. As if to match the homely nostalgia, on each trip home I’ve been working my way further into Roderick Mackinnon’s original Teach Yourself Gaelic, 1971 (1992 reissue). A treasure of an old language book, if ever there was one.

Learning places : A copy of Teach Yourself Gaelic in front of a seaside view

An unashamedly posed shot of Teach Yourself Gaelic

 

What languages, books and places go together for you? Do you have a preferred nook or corner of the world to settle down to some study in? Let us know!

The Buntùs Cainte book - a bit of language learning nostalgia!

Brewing Up Nostalgia : Buntús Cainte

My love of old language books is no secret. I’ve been harping on about my single-handed attempt at recreating the language section of my local Waterstones, circa 1993, for ages. So it’s no surprise that I snapped up another old course when I spotted it in a bookshop this weekend.

The only thing is, it’s brand new.

Well, new is subjective. It’s actually a reprint of a decades-old Irish Language course, Buntús Cainte (Foundations of the Language). It’s been a well-selling title for years, not least for the language; people seem to love it for the nostalgia of the original programme as much as the content.

The title was originally a 1960s TV show on Irish state carrier RTÉ. Like other national broadcaster courses such as the Gaelic offerings from the BBC, Can Seo and Speaking Our Language, the show was supported by printed materials that you could pick up at your local bookshop. All of them had a warm, friendly approach to “language learning in your living room”, which is probably why they still stir up such nostalgia.

The book itself is still a great resource for learning basic Irish. It’s straightforward chalk ‘n’ talk if you like that kind of thing, with vocabulary and phrase lists and brief grammar examples. It comes with two CDs of audio materials – pretty indispensable if you’re new to Irish orthography. And at less than 10€, it’s all a bit of a bargain.

Fancy a Brew?

But the loveliest thing about it is that nostalgia it brews. The cover font, still in its groovy 1960s typeface and colour scheme, is a joy, as are the of-their-time stick cartoon illustrations throughout.

Buntús Cainte

It’s a reminder that good language learning materials aren’t a sum of their content alone. They’re about the feelings they inspire, the memories they connect you back to, the vibe you get from them. Clicking with a course is a holistic process. It’s no wonder that it’s still one of the best-selling Irish books.

In a similar vein, there was a heart-warming documentary on the making of Speaking Our Language recently, which has all the same feels. Worth checking out if you want to know how these institutions of educational TV work their way into our hearts.

In any case, it’s great to find an old gem of language learning. Even greater that it’s a fresh, new print that I don’t have to clean upI don’t have to clean up, for a change!

Waves crash against rocks. Over time, contact creates change. Image by FreeImages.com

That’ll Leave A Mark! Language Contact and Change

When languages brush up against each other, they tend to leave a mark. With tongues jostling for existence within the same space, language contact situations serve up some fascinating examples of cross-pollenation.

It’s something that you keep spotting as a Gaelic learner, for example. With clockwork regularity, you come across word-for-word calques, or loan translations, lifted straight from English. You cuir air an telebhisean (put on the television). You cuir dheth co-dhùnadh (put off a decision). And I’ve even seen how you can cuir suas le cudeigein (put up with someone).

Wrapped up in Gaelic lexemes, look indigenous enough. But those prepositions air (on) and dheth (off) are behaving in ways that they might not have done, say, in Classical Gaelic, which might constrain their use more tightly. In effect, English has imported its own phrasal verb construction, which is now becoming an increasingly acceptable category in contemporary Gaelic, too. There’s syntactic change afoot.

It’s gone the other way often enough in the past, of course. The origins of the English progressive (to be -ing) may well lie with the partical + verbal noun structure of Celtic. And contemporary Hiberno-English has a past tense construction to be after doing, roughly equivalent to the perfect tense, which it appears to have nabbed from Irish.

(Un)mutual Contact

But as you might expect, language change through contact isn’t usually happening equally at any one point in time. Many factors, not least social dominance of one language over the other, can make the  transference very lop-sided.

Contact linguist Myers-Scotton makes sense of this by asking where two languages meet, fundamentally: in the minds of speakers who have to use them both. Locating the process within bilingual speakers, and how they switch between languages, is a neat way to expose the front line of contact induced change. For a start, it allows us to evaluate the status of the two parties squaring off. The ‘base’ tongue is the matrix language, forming the main sentence frames of speech. Into that, embedded language – the outside influence – inserts itself to varying degrees, in the middle of it all.

Sometimes this insertion can come in the form of a single word. Myers-Scotton gives one example from Nairobi Swahili speakers: “ku-appreciate hiyo” (to appreciate it). English, the embedded language, contributes the verb appreciate. But it’s the matrix language, Swahili, giving it a regular infinitival marker ku-.

Elsewhere, larger, deeper syntactic structures can be recruited from the embedded language. The results can drastically alter a language’s syntax; the Balkan Sprachbund is a region where neighbouring languages – from completely separate branches of Indo-European: Albanian, Greek and Slavic – have gradually come to resemble one another grammatically. The most likely driver, again, was the bumping together of different peoples, and the necessary cross-linguistic skills and code-switching that required.

The End of the Road?

For some, this kind of change is the thin end of a wedge that leads to total replacement of the less socially secure language. At some point, the matrix and embedded languages will flip. Social pressure might privilege the outside language for a new generation of speakers, who might start slotting just the odd heritage language word in, here and there, as a cultural nod. A generation on, perhaps even that will peter out.

Is that the fate befalling Gaelic, gradually taking on anglicisms to the point of transformation? Actually, I don’t think that’s the foregone conclusion here. Syntactic convergence doesn’t necessarily spell the end for a language. It can be seen as a strategy to support continued bilingualism, for example; if languages share structures, it’s cognitively less costly to maintain more than one at a time. For sure, borrowed syntax is also a crutch that helps the army of new speakers (thanks to Duolingo et al.) feel a little less lost when getting to grips with Gaelic.

No, death isn’t always the end. Contact outcomes are many, and include paths that lead to sometimes surprising, but very much un-dead extremes. Living proof of that, Media Lengua (literally something like ‘between language’), is the outcome of indigenous Kichwa crashing up against Spanish in Colombia and Eduador. The resulting mixed language preserves Kichwa grammar, but has been almost entirely re-lexified with Spanish vocabulary. Deep breaths, purists: Gaelic is a long way off from that.

Oceans Collide

As with all things linguistic, bilingual speakers are just one part of a complex picture of contact change. But running through the countless evidence as above – anecdotal and otherwise – it’s easy to appreciate why they are a particularly active site. Bilingual speakers are the point at which two tides crash up against each other and the waters mix. A sort of linguistic Grenen, Skagen where oceans collide.

It’s also pause for thought for polyglots. What features do we carry over from one language to another? And if we embed into our target language cultures, do we become agents for change?

Scotland's Census 2022 - now including Gaelic as a separate question.

Operationalising Gaelic : Census Questions As A Political Leg-Up

It’s census time in Scotland! Letter are dropping through letterboxes across the land, inviting citizens to submit their details for the national record. And there’s bit of a buzz about a certain question. Gaelic learners are chomping at the bit to answer it.

All respondents will be self-reporting their knowledge of the language across the four skills. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, admittedly, leaving aside issues of level and competence. But its inclusion carries a lot of significance for the community of speakers and learners. So much so, that there’s been a concerted Tick the Box! drive to encourage skills reporting.

Scotland's Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

Scotland’s Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

So what is so encouraging about a simple language skills question?

Well, a census is never simply a neutral fact-finding mission. The very act of asking a question about some thing has a power beyond simple information-gathering. It lends political shape and weight to the item under study. Defining something as worthy of counting – and, by extension, of governance – affords it a life of its own, out of the shadows. There’s a Foucauldian underside to that, of course. Shadier concerns have used census-taking to carve up the world better to divide and subjugate it. But, turned on its head, mindful question design can be a tool to shine a light on groups that need support.

Canvassing Gaelic as a special, separate skill anchors it to the ‘set of things that are relevant to Scottishness’ in the public mind, as well as respecting the existence of speakers and learners in Scottish society. As language planners try to shore up and reverse the retreat of Gaelic from public life in Scotland, operationalising the language like this, so publicly, helps to pull it back into general consciousness.

And importantly, this plays out amongst census respondents who might otherwise never notice the presence of the language in everyday discourse.

Shoring Up Gaelic Support

Otherwise, how the census question plays out positively on a wider scale is tied to the eventual number-crunching. For a start, self-reporting second-language speakers add to the numbers of existing native Gaels. After disappointing numbers in 2011, this, we all hope, will give a much sturdier picture of a language in revival (fingers crossed). Whatever part this plays in the debate on native versus neo-Gaelic, a growing community must surely be a good sign.

And numbers matter. They are why, amongst other things, it is far from futile to add to Duolingo’s Ukrainian learner tally right now. Large numbers signify support. And as cynical a view of governance as it may seem, pressure from a supportive public garners actions and resources from power.

A sufficient groundswell can trigger political initiatives such as a recent call for more Gaelic at the Scottish Parliament, for example. Likewise, it can get a ball rolling in terms of everyday, out-and-about visibility. Tesco’s recent promotion of the language to star position on Stornoway store signs is a great example. None of this happens without the prompting of public interest, or the proof that stats provide for it.

In that spirit, I very proudly self-reported my Gàidhlig skills this week. And I hope many thousands of others will be doing the same.

Pidgins - or pigeons? Picture by Lozba Paul, freeimages.com

Feeding the Pidgins : Perfectly Imperfect Communication

One of the language learning lifelines that has kept me going during lockdown is our little Gaelic chat circle that meets weekly on Zoom. We started off as an in-person pub chat group back in January, but as normal life started to shut down in March, our ever-enthusiastic organiser decided to keep us going in cyberspace. Thank heavens for organised folk.

Our the months, the pendulum has swung back and forth with numbers, as is always the case with these things. Some weeks we manage a proper little group chat, and occasionally there are just two of us. But there is always someone there, and the determination never fades: nothing but Gaelic for half an hour!

Perfectly Imperfect

The remarkable thing is that none of us are remotely fluent. In fact, most of us are hovering around A1/2, with our main point of commonality being the Duolingo Gaelic course.

How on earth do we manage?

Not badly, all things considered. We communicate enthusiastically and fluidly amongst ourselves, gossiping on all kinds of topics from home life to politics. To do that, we do supplement, where we have to, with the odd English word or two. Feumaidh mi a dheanamh an washing up a-nis! (I have to do the washing up now!). A bheil lockdown ann a-rithist? (Is it lockdown again?) But we have a good online Gaelic dictionary loaded up in the background to share any pertinent new vocab.

We might sometimes use our own loan translations too, like “coimhead sgìth” (literally “looking tired” using the verb ‘look’ instead of something more idiomatic – probably with coltach!). Imagine our happy surprise then, when it turns out that some of these made-up-on-the-spot forms are attested and used in first language speech too (no doubt due to the influence of English, mind). I do sometimes shudder to think what a pedant or purist might think, listening in.

But still – it works!

Pidgin Fanciers

What we’re doing feels, in some ways, like the creation of a pidgin. Just like our peppered-with-English Gaelic, pidgins arise from the need to communicate using limited knowledge of a base language. Just like grander-scale pidgins, more than two languages can end up in the mix too – a couple of us have some Irish, so that gets thrown into the pot as well.

In essence, we use what we have to say what we want.

The upside? We have become really good at that handful of colloquial structures we all share. An toil leat…? (Do you like…?), an robh thu…? (were you…?), nach eil e…? (isn’t it…?) They are all pretty much ingrained now!

But I know what you’re thinking: but what about all the errors and mispronunciations being reinforced without any correction? As real-life pidgins progress, the divergences from “standard” grammar may crystallise into something new and more ordered: a creole. As creative as it sounds, that isn’t quite our goal.

Fortunately, we have a couple of safeguards.

Taming the Pidgins

Firstly, we do have a very competent speaker who attends quite often, who has been a brilliant source of guidance and advice. Secondly, a couple of us still attend formal Gaelic classes as well, so there is always an external guiding hand to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Finally – and anyone can do this, even without access to more knowledgeable speakers or learners – we note down anything we are unsure about during conversation and pledge to read up on it after the chat. Whether in textbooks or via a Google search, the info you need is never really find.

In short, don’t let a lack of vocabulary and grammar knowledge stop you from trying to speak a language. Have a go at feeding the Pidgins. As for us, we’ll certainly keep on throwing them crumbs – it’s got us through two lockdowns, and it’ll get it through the next!

Are you looking for some more Gaelic resources after exhausting Duolingo’s course? Check these out!

A pocket watch with the time showing as quarter past three. Image from freeimages.com.

Time for some adverbs – fluency hacks for fast-paced chat

I’m a big fan of the speaking bingo sheet for conversation prep. I try to make use of them whenever I have an iTalki lesson, for example (as well as the time to prep one beforehand!).

One of the most useful phrase categories in convo lessons is without a doubt adverbials of time. Adverbs, the words of how, are incredibly useful for moving on your fluency at the best of times. Adverbials of time in particular describe when things took place. Now, then, last week, soon, suddenly… Sequence, frequency, calendar, you name it. Unsurprisingly, they’re often those little words we grasp desperately at when trying to talk about our daily lives in a new foreign language.

These little helpers are valuable power-ups towards fluency in the early stages of learning a language. They can even help you to communicate without knowing the full selection of verb tenses. For instance, “I go tomorrow” is as valid as “I will go tomorrow” in English. And even when the sentence is less grammatical, the sense is still there. “I go yesterday” is still understandable, even if it sounds a bit pidgin. In short, adverbials of time can help you make yourself understood even in the absence of an advanced knowledge of grammar.

Social glue

Another reason they’re so fundamental is their use as social glue. When you start interacting in the target language, you can find yourself planning and organising with others. Lesson times, study group meet-ups and such like all require time negotiations. Adverbs and adverbial phrases of time are the flesh and blood of the language of organising.

This hit home recently when I joined an informal local pub meet-up for beginners’ Gaelic chat in Edinburgh. It’s a lovely, super-keen group, and everyone wants to try and communicate in the language all the time. This includes the group WhatsApp, where it very quickly became apparent that we’d need to look up phrases like ‘next week’, ‘tonight’ and so on. Time phrases to the rescue again!

Time for some vocab…

So we’re agreed, these words are super handy. So handy, in fact, that I’ve taken to keeping a crib document in each of my languages just for them. And since Scottish Gaelic is everywhere right now (thanks, Duolingo!) here is my list sa Ghàidhlig, one of my most active personal projects at the moment. I hope you find it useful!

Feel free to use the English column to start your own in other languages, or download this template with gaps to fill in yourself.

Narrating in time

English Gaelic
today an-diugh
tomorrow a-màitheach
yesterday an-dè
quickly gu luath
slowly gu slaodach
early tràth
late fadalach

Sequence

English Gaelic
now a-nis
just now an-dràsta
then (at that time) an uair sin
suddenly gu h-obann
already mu thràth / mar thà
yet, still fhathast
soon a dh’aithghearr
immediately, at once anns a’ bhad
firstly, at first an toiseach
at (long) last, eventually mu dheireadh (thall)

Frequency

English Gaelic
never / ever a-riamh
rarely, seldom ainneamh
sometimes, occasionally uaireannan
usually, normally mar as/bu trice *
often gu tric
every day gach latha / a h-uile latha
every week gach seachdain
every month gach mìos
every year gach bliadhna
always an còmhnaidh
all the time fad na h-ùine

Likelihood

Not strictly speaking adverbials of time, but they are quite a good fit with this group of words, too.

English Gaelic
probably, maybe is dòcha / ‘s dòcha
definitely gu cinnteach

Calendar organising

English Gaelic
this week an t-seachdain seo
next week an-ath-sheachdain
last week an t-seachdain sa chaidh
this month air a ‘mhìos seo
next month an-ath-mhìos
last month air a ‘mhìos a chaidh
this year am bliadhna
next year an-ath-bhliadhna
last year an-uiridh

*as with present/future tenses and bu with past/conditional tenses

How many do you know in your target language(s) already? Are there any essential time phrases you would add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

A thistle. Learn Gaelic, know Scotland a little better. Image from freeimages.com

Exhausted Duolingo Gaelic already? Try these resources for size!

Got your Gaelic fix with Duolingo but hungry for more? You’re not alone. The ubiquitous language learning platform delighted users with its latest addition. But like all first-phase courses, it is not the lengthiest – yet.

More will almost certainly be in the pipeline, particularly given the popularity of the course. But you don’t have to play the waiting game – there are scores of great resources available to keep you going.

Never fear – as an incorrigible bibliophile, I’ve beavered my way through a heap of beginners’ materials, so you don’t have to. And however solid and ever-present the Teach Yourself and Routledge Colloquial courses are, there’s more to language learning life than just those. So enjoy some of these less obvious newcomers’ picks below for a varied foray into elementary Scottish Gaelic!

Ceumannan – Stòrlann

Ceumannan means footsteps in Gaelic, and is also the name of the secondary level textbook used to teach Gaelic in schools. Despite being aimed at kids, it covers all the ground you’d expect of any good primer course. So much so, in fact, that it is the textbook of choice in my Gaelic evening class at Edinburgh University.

Book one is the chunkiest of the five-volume set. This is its strength – the basics are thoroughly recycled again and again in different contexts throughout the book. By the end of it, you should really have mastered the basics of Gaelic syntax.

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools - and adult learners!

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools – and adult learners!

Publishers Stòrlann have also made available all of the listening material on the free Ceumannan website. The site itself is beginning to look a little clunky and dated (the Flash games, for example, will no longer work for many), but it is still a goldmine of material for learners.

Gaelic without Groans – John MacKechnie

This next resource is a real treat, especially if you like the quirkiness of language manuals from a bygone age as much as I do.

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans dates from the middle of the last century, but saw multiple reprints over the decades. Although out of print now, you can still pick up second-hand copies very cheaply online or offline. It’s always popping up in second-hand bookshops across Edinburgh, for example.

This short, friendly and joyfully eccentric introduction to basic Gaelic is a gem. MacKechnie adopts a chatty, informal style from the outset, introducing a point of basic grammar in each concise chapter. Core vocabulary appears in bite-sized chunks at the end of each section, with good old-fashioned drill exercises to hammer the points home.

John MacKechnie's Gaelic without Groans - a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans – a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

The very observant might notice a couple of discrepancies with one or two spellings, compared to much more modern learning resources. However, the differences are generally very minor. And in any case, they serve as a window onto the world of a language with plenty of dialect variation, and still undergoing many of the processes of standardisation.

Gaelic without Groans really is a joy – well worth a couple of pounds if you come across it!

Gràmar na gàidhlig – Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne’s Gràmar na Gàidhlig is another concise but packed book. Chock full of example sentences, it describes key points of Gaelic grammar in short, snappy sections. If you are struggling to understand the nuts and bolts in your other books, Gràmar na Gàidhlig puts them in terms that are very easy to understand.

The book itself is part of Gaelic language history, being a translation of the first Gaelic grammar with explanations completely in the language itself. In this English edition, you can take advantage of its clarity of instruction as a second language learner too.

BBC materials

As with Ceumannan, some of the most useful resources can be those aimed at young people. BBC Bitesize, the revision website, has a low-profile but very handy section for Gaelic learners. The target audience is students revising for Scottish school qualifications, but all learners will find the short grammar summaries useful. Some sections, like this page on irregular verbs, contain some really practical vocabulary lists, too.

Of course, the BBC in Scotland has a history of Gaelic instruction that goes further back than the Internet days. Former flagship Gaelic offering Speaking Our Language still has legendary status. That’s thanks in part to some pretty cheesy dialogue and hammy acting, but nonetheless, it is an excellent place to learn some Gàidhlig.

Supporting course book for BBC's Speaking Our Language

A supporting course book for BBC’s Speaking Our Language

The excellent site LearnGaelic.scot has repackaged some of the Speaking Our Language material for use online, including supporting exercises. That said, you can also catch repeats on BBC Alba, or find the programmes in their full, original, 1990s glory on YouTube. Revel in the nostalgia those yesteryear fashions inspire!

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Finally, if apps are your thing, you can still get a little vocabulary and grammar practice beyond Duolingo with Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz by Geoglot. Available on iOS and Android, the app doubles as a reference and drill tool. John MacKechnie would probably have loved those translation-based games.

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Life beyond Duolingo

So there you have five places to continue your Gaelic beyond the green owl. Of course, this list can only scratch the surface of what is available. Honourable mentions must go to Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, and the now antiquated original edition of Teach Yourself Gaelic, and all the others yet to cross my path.

But for a bit of resource-hunting of your own, try perusing the items at Stòrlann, the Gaelic publishing house. And, of course, a trip to any good second-hand bookshop in Scotland!

Hopefully, this little selection shows that whether on page or screen, there is life beyond Duolingo. Explore, enjoy, and please share any of your own resource tips in the comments below!

An owl - not the Duolingo one, but probably related. Image by Pamela Benn on freeimages.com

Approaching Duolingo : One Way to Catch An Owl

In case you hadn’t noticed, Duolingo released its Scottish Gaelic course early this week. And naturally, I leapt straight in like a pig in mud!

Like many, I had waited patiently and eagerly for this release, not least since I study Gaelic at evening classes in Edinburgh. Despite a resolution not to race ahead, Duolingo’s early Christmas present was a gift too good not to open straight away. As expected, it is a joy of bite-sized vocabulary snacks.

Devouring unit after unit, it struck me that there are many ways to systematically approach a resource like this. The question of how to tackle Duolingo also cropped up recently in discussion with excellent iTalki tutor Marcel, who is running a Duo-challenge WhatsApp group I’m part of. Personally, I prefer a two-wave method. I outline it here in the hope that it helps others who, at first glance, find a huge topic tree a bit overwhelming, and wonder how to tackle it.

The two-wave approach to Duolingo

This method has a lot in common with the forward-loading approach to course books, which is one of my favourite ways to tackle language learning material. It involves an initial, exploratory reccy through the material, combined with a systematic and focused follow-up.

The first wave

When you first open up that course, it is all about getting to know the terrain. Like hacking your way through undergrowth, you need to clear a path first.

Duolingo prevents users from accessing material out of order by locking lessons until the previous one is completed to the first of five XP levels. However, unlocking to this first, blue level is usually just a matter of a few short introductory lessons. So, in the first wave, you simply steam ahead, unlocking topic sections just to level one before opening up the next one. In no time at all, you’ll have blued up a good portion of your tree (or maybe even all of it with a shorter course like Gaelic).

Don’t worry too much about retention at this stage. The aim is to have fun, notice the shapes and sounds of the language, and lay down some passive pre-knowledge before we get serious. Above all, it is the no stress stage. Just explore and enjoy your new language!

The second wave

When you have unlocked a fair few topics, the second wave can begin!

At this stage of your Duolingo attack, you go right back to the very first topic section. Work through slowly and carefully, one by one, hammering each topic to level up fully to gold before moving on to the next.

Note that there is no speed pressure here. You can gold a topic up in a single sitting, or take days to do it. The important thing is that, during this more focused stage, you resist the temptation to move on before a topic is gold.

The second stage is where the deep learning occurs. But thanks to the familiarity you have from the first pass, you already have a ground layer to build on.

A snapshot of my progress through Duolingo Scottish Gaelic, showing how the two-wave approach works.

A golden wave works its way through Duolingo!

Own the vocabulary

Here is the crucial turbo-boost you can engage during the second wave: make the vocabulary your own. Duolingo shouldn’t simply be a passive resource. For long-term learning, you should record all those new words and phrases in your own, separate collection for drilling.

Anki is hard to beat on that score. Every time I meet a new item in the lessons, I look up a detailed definition using a resource like Wiktionary, and add it to an Anki deck. Since Anki will also drip-feed that vocabulary to you using its clever spaced repetition algorithm, you effectively double the learning power of the Duolingo course.

And that’s all there is to the two-wave approach. Familiarise first, study systematically, and make the material your own as you go. A simple but effective way to catch an owl!

How do you approach Duolingo courses? Do you use a different technique? And have you started Gaelic yourself? Let us know in the comments!