I’ve been learning Gaelic on Duolingo…but should I?

We are regular visitors to the Highlands of Scotland. After one recent trip, my eldest child expressed an interest in learning Gaelic. It turns out that Duolingo is fairly popular among her schoolfriends, so she asked if she could give it a try. This particular child gives lots of things a try and either gives up very quickly or gets very, very, extremely interested in the subject. It turned out that learning Gaelic on Duolingo was one that stuck. She practiced diligently every night, loudly and repeatedly. I had fun guessing what she was saying. Some I guessed from context, some are similar to Scots, some similar to Swedish. At first she got annoyed at me, this was her thing. Then she decided it would be good to have someone to practice with, so I was challenged to stop guessing and start learning.

Like many people living in Scotland, I’d picked up a bit of Gaelic over the years. My dad is a big Runrig fan so we spent many a car journey listening to songs in Gaelic. I could reel them off phonetically but had little idea of their meanings. We did attempt to learn when I was younger, we got some tapes and videos of the BBC series “Can Seo”. We didn’t last long, and if you watch the videos, you’ll see why…. Later there was an STV series “Speaking Our Language”. I think we tried to follow that too but with limited success. Some of those clips have been incorporated into the website for the current initiative “Learn Gaelic”. At some point in the 1990s a 5 minute news segment in Gaelic was tacked on after the main Scottish tv news, so we all learned the words for “Good afternoon” and “good evening” and “today” but not much else.

I love language and learning languages. Over the years I’ve done a bit of French, Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and British Sign Language – I now work as a BSL/English Interpreter. I suppose if I was going to learn another language it should be Gaelic, being a language native to my country. However I’ve never really felt that Gaelic was rightfully “my” language. I grew up in Dundee, in the north east of Scotland. If Gaelic was ever spoken in the region it was a very long time ago indeed. My heritage is firmly rooted in that area, none of my ancestors hailing from much further afield than Perthshire or Fife. Gaelic was never part of my background or culture, it was a Highland/north-west Scotland thing but not a Dundonian thing.

It is, of course, a Scottish thing though and the Scottish Government have been making efforts in recent years to revive and revitalise the language across the whole country. Child1 and I are not alone in our learning – recently Duolingo clocked up over 1 million users on their Scots Gaelic course, although most live in North America there are a good portion of learners here in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Is it any good though? If anyone were to tell me they were learning British Sign Language from an app or a website I would vigorously recommend that they get themselves along to a class lead by a qualified Deaf Tutor. An app or online course, no matter how well designed, can’t give anywhere near the same experience as learning in person from a native speaker, especially one who can teach about the culture and usage of the language as well as the vocabulary and grammar.

Duolingo rather notoriously teaches using weird and wonderful phrases – some excellent examples can be found here and here . All 1 million of us going through the course are learning the same phrases in the same order, and can therefore only converse about certain limited topics. If we were to find ourselves in the Highlands or Islands among actual Gaelic speakers I suspect we wouldn’t get very far and they would be somewhat concerned with our preoccupation with pigs and Irn Bru. Despite my many highland travels, I’ve only come across real Gaelic spoken by real Gaelic speakers “in the wild” once – about 25 years ago on a holiday to the Outer Hebrides. I’m certain very few of us 1 million would understand a word any locals might utter.

It all reminds me of the brilliant Eddie Izzard sketch about learning French – please do yourself a favour and watch it here, I’ll wait. I fear my only hope of practicing my new found skills would be to travel to Stornoway with a frog, 9 kittens, some herring, a bonnet and and an unfortunate friend named Iain. I may not be able to hold a conversation with locals but any fellow app users and I can all collectively give thanks that Una is wearing underpants.

It is entirely possible to go through the course without uttering a single word in the language you are learning. You are encouraged to speak along and repeat but there is no voice detection part of the process that has you say the phrases to check if you are picking them up correctly. If you are physically able to, speaking the words and forming the new sounds yourself allows you to really pick up on the difference between “an” and “ann”, to feel how accented vowels are different from unaccented and to wonder how on earth “ard” requires you to produce a “sh” and a “t” sound. You also get the great pleasure of saying the beautifully rhythmic first long phrase learned – “Cò ris a tha an t-side coltach an-diugh?” (What is the weather like today) which my daughter askes me with great relish at every opportunity. We try out phrases with each other and on the rare occasion where a phrase we have learned actually fits an everyday situation we take advantage. We got a few strange looks at the local farm when we both yelled, “Tha mi a’ cluinntinn gobhar!” (I am hearing a goat). Anyone learning via the app alone may not have that opportunity to practice with others. Why do we learn languages if not to communicate with others? There needs to be a communal, social, shared experience aspect to language learning and practice. If immersion isn’t possible then real world interaction should be sought out. Will I ever get the chance to converse with a native Gaelic speaker? Who knows. Will they be interested in yet another person blethering on about how many kittens they have or whether or not Morag has a jacket on? Unlikely.

Despite these shortcomings, credit has to be given to Duolingo for making language learning fun. The gamification of the process does add to the appeal. My daughter loves looking at her stats and charting her progress, earning the gems and trophies for various milestones. There is a sense of achievement in getting these rewards and it undoubtedly spurs you on to unlock the next topic or complete the month’s challenge.

So whilst I may not hail from a Gaelic-speaking area I do think there is merit in Scots from all places having some knowledge of Gaelic. It is a challenging but interesting language to learn and I would hate to see it further decline in Scotland or only be continued by the enthusiasm of the diaspora. Duolingo and the like aren’t ideal conduits for teaching language but it is the only method so far that has engaged me to any extent and surely some of the 1 million online users will decide to pursue their studies more formally and find a place within the Gaelic community. I’m not sure how long my daughter and I will stick at it, but for now we are having fun and learning something new and that is never a bad thing.

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