Eager to push my Gaelic out of the language course box and into the wild, I’ve been working with a number of short texts for intermediate learners lately. Luckily, quite a few readers have appeared in the recent years, including a bunch of fun titles that go beyond the usual ‘Celtic myths retold’ route (not taking anything away from the great series of beginners’ books from Jason Bond).
A recent favourite of mine, Nigheanan Mòra (Big Girls, 2014), was penned by one of the creatives behind recent BBC Alba drama hit An Clò Mòr, Catrìona Lexy Chaimbeul. On the surface, it’s in firm rom com territory, at turns silly, funny and melodramatic. But it’s grown-up enough to feel like you’re reading a real book, and not just an oversimplified, fleshless yarn that trades plot for easy reading. It’s also chock full of colloquial, conversational Gaelic dialogue, which makes for a great living language learning model.
That said, getting the most from a reader takes a bit more organisation than simply starting at page one and ploughing through. Better to have a strategy to maximise both your enjoyment and your learning.
Working With Texts : One Approach
Of course, there’s no single ‘correct’ way to work through target language texts. Through trial and error, I’ve found a way that works for me, which I’ll outline here. It works best with short-ish texts, since it involves two passes in quick-ish succession, but you could also use it with short sections of longer texts.
That’s because manageable chunk size is the key to this method. Often, you won’t need to worry about that with texts specifically for learners. Many books that support learners, like Nigheanan Mòra, already have nice short chapters of 5-10 pages. I find that’s the ideal length to read and digest texts without tiring (because, let’s face it, reading in a foreign language is more taxing). If chapters are much longer, just flick ahead a little way to see if there’s a natural stop somewhere, and make that your goal.
Pass One : the Chill read
After that, it’s time to start reading. The first pass is the no-chill literary gambol. Read for gist and plot, and don’t fret a jot about the odd unknown word. The focus here is on simply understanding and enjoying the story, first and foremost. I like to go full non-study mode at this stage. I’ll pick a cosy reading spot, grab a drink and just try to immerse myself in the story. No dictionaries, no pencils, no interruptions.
After that first reading – maybe 20 minutes or so – I’ll stop, take a breath, and reflect on the twists and turns of the plot. It’s important to take a passive break to cogitate calmly like this, given that our brains work more efficiently with pacing (a trait the Pomodoro technique plays into).
Pass Two : The Close Read
After this brief pause, I’ll then flick back casually through the pages I’ve just read. In particular, I’ll revisit those passages I felt were tough, or noticed myself slow down in during the first pass. For each one, I’ll re-read carefully, this time trying to translate in my head, paying more attention to the grammatical structures. I’ll also spend some time on words I didn’t get the first time round, looking for contextual clues to help guess the meaning (and not reaching straight for the dictionary).
This is the stage where I really prefer old-school paper books to Kindle ones. I’ll have a pencil by me, underlining any turns of phrase that sound really idiomatic or conversationally useful. With a pop-story like Nigheanan Mòra, there’ll be loads of those, thanks to all the snappy dialogue. They’re the snippets where I’ve realised aha! So that’s how you say X in Gaelic.
Finally, after all that, I’ll spend some time cross-referencing those new structures in grammars and online materials like the LearnGaelic.scot dictionary and Wiktionary. Once I’m sure I’ve understood them, I’ll add the phrases to my Anki deck. Adding phrases is so much more effective that lifting just individual words from texts. We speak in phrases, not lone words, so by the end of this stage I have some truly useful material to drill. This phrase-lifting approach thoroughly mines a text for connectives and sentence frames – the bread and butter of fluency.
Find What Works For You
So there you have it – one way to work with authentic texts. It’s not rocket science or particularly groundbreaking, but it works for me. And it helps, in terms of discipline, to know that I have these regular steps to follow, to give my target language reading some kind of structure.
What I also find invaluable about it, in terms of motivation, is building in a reading for pleasure stage, which includes choosing material I find fun, as well as the time to enjoy it without pressure. Even if that is silly old rom coms.
After all, learning and practising languages shouldn’t just be work, work, work.
There are myriad ways to approach target language texts. What works for you? Let us know in the comments!