A Capsule Language Learning Library?

Sometimes, it feels like I’m permanently on the road. With family, friends and work spread out across the country,  I travel a lot. Anything that makes that easier is a win in my book, so I’m all for minimalism and streamlining. Lately, I’ve been taken by the idea of the ultra-simple capsule wardrobeit worked for Einstein, Steve Jobs, and a host of others, after all – and in that spirit, I’ve been trying to pare down my togs to a few essentials that I can fit into a travel bag.

But if we can do that with our clothes and feel instantly lighter, why not try it with other things… like our language learning materials, for instance?

Now don’t you worry. I haven’t decided to donate all my language books to charitable causes just yet. But the idea strikes me as a decent one for the language learning traveller: deciding on a core set of books that provide the max learning learning on the go, but don’t weigh down your carry-on. (Obviously a couple for each language project, assuming you just focus on one per trip – I’m not talking polyglot minimalism here, just resource minimalism! )

In any case, it’s a fun exercise to try with your (probable, if you anything like me) heaps of books. As with a capsule wardrobe, it’s good to set a limit on the number of pieces. Because books are a bit heavier and (gulp – forgive me saying this – marginally less essential) than clothes, I think two (only two?!) is a good number to play the game. A good course book and a decent reference volume go pretty well together, I think.

Here are some of my attempts, limiting myself to two (really only two?!) books per language:

Gaelic

You can’t beat a Colloquial for in-depth language tuition. I find they always double as reference works too, so you have a double whammy right there. My other choice is quite a grammar-heavy look at Gaelic verbs, but with lots of side references to other aspects of the language too. Every time I dip into it, I come across something new. Solid.

German

Less of the learning material, more of the reference here, with German being my second language and strongest foreign language. Hammer’s Grammar is the definitive reference on all things Deutsch, and Wort für Wort has kept me in advanced conversation topics since I did my German A-level in the last century.

Greek

Who amongst us doesn’t love a good Routledge? I have a special soft spot for the Essential Grammar series, since they’re almost as comprehensive as the, ahem, Comprehensive series, but a bit less overwhelming. Twin that with a Teach Yourself (and you know I love me a Teach Yourself), and we’re ready for that trip to the islands.

Handy bonus: all of the Teach Yourself audio is available online in the TY library app, too. Or, if you have a Kindle, you can get the book and the audio in a single format.

Polish

Never one to shy away from being predictable, I paired up my Polish outfit to match my Greek one. Well, if it works…

Ready, steady… Capsule!

So there you go. Four of my essential Summer outfits.

Apart from the fun element of challenge to it, capsuling your books makes you think hard about what you already have. It  helps you to take stock of your materials. and decide what your core strategy is. And it keeps you ready to run and learn – whether that’s on holiday, or up the road for some study time in the library!

Which textbooks are your hero items? What would make your desert island cut? Let us know in the comments!

A diagram showing lots of connections between coloured dots, representing a network. Image from FreeImages.com

Everything In Order : Fascinating Correspondences

When you have a finger in many pies – as those of us who love gorging on languages tend to – you start to realise that the flavour of those pies, the individual ingredients, turn up again and again. And sometimes, those repeated recipes surprise the palate. A hint of savoury in a sweet dish; a dash of sweetness in the salty. Unexpected culinary correspondences are always a delectable treat.

OK, enough with the fodder metaphors. Here, we use our tongues for speaking, not tasting. (Well, both, if we’re totally honest.) But one unexpected correspondence popped up for me this week, which linked together two of my languages that I thought were otherwise fairly distant from each other otherwise: Gaelic and German.

Order, Order

German is famously particular about its word order. Its hallmark is the verb-final phrase, where we get sentences like:

Ich will eine Banane essen. (I want a banana to-eat.)
Ich habe versucht, die Banane zu essen. (I have tried, the banana to eat.)
Ich habe eine Banane gegessen. (I have a banana eaten.)

I know, more food. Can’t help myself, can I?

But foody or not, this kind of sentence is something that becomes instinctive after a while learning and speaking the language. It is so quintessentially German, that I was surprised to see the same kind of thing crop up in Gaelic.

Where verb phrases are governed by a matrix element containing modal expressions like ‘is urrainn’ (can) or ‘feumaidh’ (must), we see verb-object inversion, leaving the verb at the end of the phrase. And the word order of the subordinate verb phrase is curiously like the German:

Feumaidh mi biadh a cheannach (Must I food to buy)
Ich muß Essen kaufen (I must food to-buy)

What’s afoot here?

Explaining Correspondences

Now, it could all be chance, of course (recalling Dawkins’ independently developing eyes). Or does it point towards some distant echo of Proto-Indo-European word order? The latter makes me happy, like an archaeologist unearthing a fossil that connects two distantly related prehistoric creatures. In fact, many believe that, as far as PIE had a ‘default’ word order, it was probably verb-final. Perhaps Gaelic and German both preserved this in their lexical amber.

On the other hand, maybe it’s all down to language contact. Proto-Celtic and German occupied the same kind of geographical space once upon a time. Maybe bilingual speakers of one influenced the word order of the other.

Fascinating questions. It all makes me wish I were an historical syntactician.

In any case, I love spotting language correspondences like these, especially if I haven’t read about them specifically before. And the more you dabble, the more they pop up.

Are there any joy-inspiring crossovers that you’ve spotted in your languages recently?

A wee book treat to myself: Colloquial Scottish Gaelic (Routledge)

A Book in the Hand (Is Worth Two in the Kindle Library)

Sometimes I forget how much I love to hold a real book in my hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience of Kindle titles and other e-formats. Only the other week I was singing the praises of the Teach Yourself enhanced versions. A whole course – text and audio – in a single place (and it adds 0kg to my backpack weight). I still think they’re fantastic.

But sometimes you get a reminder of how satisfying old school is. I had one this week when I finally plumped for a long yearned-for hard copy of Colloquial Scottish Gaelic.

Why had I put it off for so long?

Well, there’s the price of the hard copy, for a start. £35 is a hefty commitment for a book. Especially so, considering that I had access to the electronic version for free through my university library. Not only that, but like many publishing platforms making audio content free, Routledge has put all the audio online. I could access all of the content already!

But for all that, I just wasn’t bothering to use the materials at all. Why? screams the spendthrift inside me.

Fast forward, my Amazon credit spent, and the book proudly on my shelf. I’m picking it up at every opportunity, having a quick nose here and there when I notice it, sitting down for half an hour’s mooch through the pages. I’m even listening to those audio materials and reading along, finally.

So what is so different?

It’s hard to put your finger on just what is so special about a real book. There’s the joy of the tangible ownership of it, perhaps. I made an investment in a thing – now I want to make the most of that thing. It’s almost like you can feel the weight of the knowledge you’ve paid for right in there.

And there’s nothing like using money (or vouchers) to feel the value of a physical object. I admit I get a bit of that as I curate a Kindle library. It’s lovely seeing the digital books line up neatly on those shelves.

But there’s  something simply cosy (or hyggelig, or gemütlich etc.) about holding a real book in your hands, isn’t there?

And sometimes it takes a wee treat to yourself to remind you of that.

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.

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Going Old School with Language Learning Flash Cards

You might have noticed that I’m partial to a cheat sheet in my language comings and goings. There’s only so much you can hold in short-term memory before a speaking class, and having a scaffold to hand – even gamifying it, where possible – can be a boon. Crib notes, cheat sheets, flash cards – they’re par for the course in language learning. And everyone seems to have their own favourite label for them.

Now, my first thought when making these things is: which app is best for this? But to be honest, I’ve been a little apped out of late. Sometimes, the tech can take the focus while the language takes a back seat, and that defeats the whole object. Too often I’ve spent time faffing with note settings and layout before getting down to the main event.

Flash Cards on Cue

As if on cue, our evening class Gaelic tutor recently prompted the group to dispense with the tech and go old school. Our homework task was simply to create paper crib notes for the material we were finding trickiest, and set them in prominent places around the home. She calls them ‘bingo cards‘, by the way, proving that everybody in the world does seem to have a different term for these linguistic comfort blankets.

So, out came the colouring pens. I’m a fiend for new stationery – a predilection I’ve noticed is shared by a lot of us bookish linguaphiles. I had a fresh pack of Staedtlers just begging to feel useful. I knew it – they weren’t just an impulse buy, after all.

The Magic in the Doing

As with all these things, the magic is in the doing, as much as the result. Investing a bit of time and creative energy into your resources doesn’t half help you cosy up to your language. I was pretty loved up in my index card creations and their technicolour irregular verb decorations on one side, and English prompts on the other:

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Homemade Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

I must admit, I didn’t overthink (or even plan) them. Rather than faff, I just had fun. The colours don’t have any special significance apart from separating tenses from each other. But it doesn’t matter – they say little things please little minds, but I was quite content to keep my mind little and my thinking nice and simple with them.

The verdict? They’ve already helped me in Gaelic convo starters – a lot.

Sometimes old school really is the best school – especially when it provides an excuse to buy more stationery.

Three books for learning Scottish Gaelic

From My Bookshelf : Gaelic Books You Might Have Missed

I’m an absolute hound for language learning books. Not least when I have a new project – the excitement of a new language is the perfect catalyst for a bookshop raid. And since starting Gaelic a couple of years ago, my little reference library has blossomed.

But it’s not the Teach Yourself and Colloquial course books that spark the real excitement (however wonderful they are, too). Rather, it’s the little gems that are a bit harder to find, the titles you only come across in either really well-stocked shops, or little specialist ones. Often they hail from much smaller publishing houses, too, so have an individuality and authentic voice all of their own.

Here are three of my favourite ‘little finds’ from my Gaelic bookshelf!

A Gaelic Alphabet (George McLennon)

When I started Gaelic, I was – like many – bamboozled by the spelling. With the benefit of a good teacher and lots of hindsight, that system seems completely logical now – perhaps much more so than its quirky English counterpart! But back at the beginning, all that talk of broad and slender consonants, and caol ri caol ‘s leathann ri leathann was utterly alien.

I came across this book long after it had finally clicked, but I’d have loved to find it at the start. McLennon systematically works through all the letters of the Gaelic alphabet, giving copious examples of how words containing them sound. There are lots of nods to the Gaelic world too, making it a true treasure if you’re just starting out on your journey.

Gaelic Verbs Systemised and Simplified (Colin Mark)

I must admit, I have a thing for verbs. When starting a new language, I always go straight for them, eager to find out how to express past, present and future. Maybe it’s the storyteller in me.

Gaelic verbs, like the spelling, might seem to operate in quite an unfamiliar way for the new learner, especially those coming from SVO languages like French, German or Spanish. This book breaks it all down, explaining the quirks from dependent forms to verbal nouns. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to create Scottish Verb Blitz, an app that I still practise with today.

Gràmar na Gàidhlig (Michel Byrne)

I’ve flagged the excellent Gràmar na Gàidhlig before in my pick of post-Duolingo resources, but it bears mentioning again as a golden Gaelic pick. Translated for English-speaking learners from a highly successful purely Gaelic version, it’s a clear and accessible reference and learning guide if you like exploring the nuts and bolts.

It is getting harder to source now, although I’ve seen copies here and there in the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh, and you can also still buy it direct from the publisher here.

Honourable Mentions

This trio is perhaps at the forefront of my mind right now, as I’ve found myself using them a bit more often lately. But there are so many other perhaps lesser-known Gaelic resources out there, some still in print, others available second-hand.  I can’t leave out Gaelic without Groans, for instance, which is simply from a whole other world, and a cute and quirky joy to read. Then there’s An leabhar mòr (the great book), a more recent compendium of illustrated verse in the language. 

It’s a good sign of continued, thriving interest in learning the language, of course – as well as testimony to the treasure of books, large and small. If you give them a go, I hope you love these titles as much as I do.

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!

Like Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the landscapes of both countries can be remarkably similar. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland. Image by Jeff Osborn, FreeImages.com.

Birds of a Feather Learn Irish and Scottish Gaelic Together

There are a ton of benefits to learning closely related languages together. And polyglot pairs don’t come much closer than Irish and Scottish Gaelic, island cousins with a fascinating history.

Under the extensive Dál Riata kingdom, Old Gaelic formed a continuum that stretched from Ireland to much of the West coast of Scotland. In the latter, it ultimately displaced the Pictish language, which many researchers believe was a Brittonic Celtic language more closely related to Breton, Cornish and Welsh.

The language, spanning two islands, was at the height of its cultural and political power in the eleventh century, after which a string of conquests began to erode its dominance. Politically separated and marginalised for hundreds of years, the two language groups went their own way, developing into distinct tongues with a much reduced mutual intelligibility.

Neither language has had it easy. Systematic neglect and aggressive anglicisation saw  both pushed to the peripheries of their respective lands. But now, thanks to individual and local government efforts, they are blossoming again. Gaelic in particular is starting to enjoy the revival efforts that gave Irish a shot in the arm, not least with the recent release of a brand new Duolingo course.

So how similar are they?

Perfect complements

Despite those long years apart in the wilderness, they remain remarkably close, particularly in grammar and syntax. They share some of the very typical – but, to newcomers, often surprising – features of Goidelic languages. When you get your head around those in one of them, then the heavy mental lifting is done for the other, too.

For instance, word order in both follows the verb-subject-object pattern, rather than the more familiar subject-verb-object of English and many other Indo-European languages. Just compare the phrase “the cat is big” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic to see the family resemblance:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Tá an cat mór. Tha an cat mòr.

And yes, the accents go up in Irish and down in Scottish Gaelic – a satisfyingly quirky distinction!

But here’s our first difference: in the spoken rendering of that pair of sentences, you hear one of the phonetic foibles that set them apart, too. Tá/tha (‘is’), which must be amongst the top ten most frequent words in both languages, are pronounced /t̪ˠɑː/ and /haː/ respectively. The discrepancy really colours both languages, and is one of the first things to listen out for when trying to tell them apart (that, and the heavily rolled Scottish ‘r’!).

Verbs

And that tá/tha leads us on to one of the big differences for beginner learners: verbs in the present tense. Now, Irish still has a synthetic present. That is, it conjugates its present tense as a single word by changing endings on the verb stem.

However, Scottish Gaelic has lost that in favour of an analytic, or periphrastic formation – one that relies on auxiliary, or helper structures. It just so happens that this auxiliary is the very same tha (from the verb bi, to be).

Let’s take the verb ith (to eat), identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic in its root form. Here is the present tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
ithim tha mi ag ithe
itheann tú tha thu ag ithe
itheann sé/sí tha e/i ag ithe
ithimid tha sinn ag ithe
itheann sibh tha sibh ag ithe
itheann siad tha iad ag ithe

The Scottish Gaelic form maps literally onto the English “I am at eating” and so on. It is a form that exists in Irish, but it retains its present continuous sense in that language. In Scottish Gaelic, it completely replaces the simple present tense forms.

That’s not to say that the pressures of change have left the Irish present tense untouched. In earlier Irish, all six persons of the present were different forms. Today, as you can see, only the first person singular and plural (I eat, we eat) have distinct forms, while the others are the same. For that reason, you still need to use the pronouns tú, sé/sí, sibh and siad to make clear who you are talking about in the Irish present.

Two to be

Talking of to be, you will have to get used to two ways to say it in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. That may be nothing new, of course. If you have some Spanish, you will sympathise after trying to get a grip on ser and estar.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic distinguish between the regular ‘to be’ and a special copula verb, which speakers use predicatively to identify and classify. It is quite an unusual concept to an English speaker, and the logic behind use of the copula can seem complex at first.

Take the identifying phrase “I am Richard”, for example. Handily, it is identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. But it does not use the verb bi (which would be táim or tha mi respectively). Instead, we have:

🇮🇪🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Is mise Richard.

Again, become familiar with it in one language, and it will make complete sense when you come to learn the other!

There’s a doctor in me!

But wait – here’s one case where Scottish Gaelic goes off-script again. When talking about roles or professions, Irish uses a simple sentence with the copula, such as “I am a doctor”:

🇮🇪 Is dochtúir mé.

However, Scottish Gaelic uses a construction with bi that translates as something more like “I am in my doctor” (stifle those giggles!):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Tha mi nam dhotair.

Not only that, but there is an alternative way to express it which is more or less “it is a doctor that is in me“. This uses both the copula (shortened to ‘s) and the verb bi (tha):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 ‘s e dotair a th’ annam

It is the fascinating differences like these that make learning Irish and Scottish Gaelic together so rewarding.

Chuck an ‘h’ in

And this leads us on to the final observation in this beginner’s roundup. Did you notice that the word dotair for ‘doctor’ appears in two forms in the Scottish Gaelic sentences above? Well, that is due to a really important feature that both languages share, the phenomenon of lenition.

Lenition, as my Gaelic class teacher helpfully summarises, is the tendency to chuck an ‘h’ in at the beginning of words. The -h- is just orthographical, of course. The actual change is a softening, or weaking, of the initial consonant sound (lenis means ‘weak’ in Latin).

In short, under some grammatical conditions, this softening occurs to certain sounds. For instance, in both languages, lenition is triggered after the definite article the with feminine singular nouns:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
woman bean wife bean
the woman an bhean the wife a’ bhean

(Note also the difference in meaning that has crept in with bean between the languages.)

Lenition is device in so many grammatical contexts in both languages, many of them identical. It is also used to indicate the past tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
kiss póg pòg
kissed phóg phòg

If there is a difference between the languages, it is in how far sound changes like this are reflected in the orthography. Irish spelling seems generally a lot more indicative of phonetic phenomena, including coarticulation effects like eclipsis. Take ‘our boat’ in both languages:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
boat bád bàta
our boat ár mbád ar bàta

The spelling rules of Irish dictate that the phonetic changes of r + b are marked. However, Scottish Gaelic is a little less fussy!

Vocabulary

Core vocabulary – the words that have been everyday terms for hundreds and hundreds of years – are still, pretty much, identical twins across the two languages. Here are a few food pairs in Irish / Scottish Gaelic:

  • arán (aran in Gaelic) (bread)
  • bainne (milk)
  • feoil (feòil in Gaelic) (meat)
  • iasg (fish)
  • im (ìm in Gaelic) (butter)
  • ispín (isbean in Gaelic) (sausage)

That said, a thousand years was enough to throw out a fair few differences in common terms, too, even if some words share a common root:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
carrot cáiread curran
potato práta buntàta
soup anraith brot (cf. English ‘broth’)

What with those terms, and all that ‘eating’ earlier, I realise how fond I am of edible examples. I blame the wonderful food on offer in both Ireland and Scotland!

Goidelic adventure

For my part, I am still very much at the beginning of my Goidelic adventure. As such, this is very much a beginner’s overview of how the two languages relate to one other.

But already, studying both of them together has been a wonderful way to experience fairly recent language change in action. If you have any interest in historical linguistics, studying Irish and Scottish Gaelic at the same time is eye-opening.

And even if you don’t, they are a pair of very beautiful languages to get to know.

 

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