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.

What do I know about Code-Switching? Well, I’m from Dundee…

The other day my kids were acting out some scenario, both pretending to be old people. Inevitably, their old people characters speak Scots. Well, their best imitations of Scots, which, with them having 1 parent and grandparents from the north-east, the other parent and grandparent from the south-east but themselves growing up in the west of Scotland, results in a mangled mixture of Glaswegian-meets-Dundonian with a liberal sprinkling of Borders. I don’t so much correct them as suggest more consistent phraseology, because I’m happy for them to play around with language and it’s interesting to hear what they come up with. Even more interesting is that they feel they have to “put on” the accent/dialect when in character rather than seeing those words as ones they might actually employ themselves, even though they understand them in context.

I’m a sign language interpreter, so am lucky enough to work with languages in a professional capacity, but my long and still continuing journey to become a language professional started with a personal, recreational interest in languages. I learnt French at school and enjoyed it, although we weren’t particularly encouraged to take languages as advanced courses (I could write a whole blog series on my school experience…) I then spent a year in Sweden and learned basic Swedish. After university, where I trained in a Japanese martial art and therefore picked up a smattering of Japanese, I took some evening classes, first to refresh my French, then beginners Spanish. Finally I landed in British Sign Language and that one stuck and led me, after a decade of learning on and off, to start a 2nd career as an interpreter.

But all those are “proper” languages. When I was younger, Scots wasn’t really given serious credence. Growing up in Dundee, we always felt that our particular variant was just Dundonian, not really part of the whole Auld Lang Syne, old timey Robert Burns era way of speaking. Dundonian was fine to speak with your pals but we would get in trouble at school for not speaking properly – ironically sometimes discouraged from being “orrie”… * We were told that there was something wrong and shameful about the way we spoke. It wasn’t given a name, it was just not “proper”.

I’ve spent a lot of lockdown time listening to linguistics podcasts, primarily Lingthusiasm and The Allusionist. The latter has done 2 episodes featuring Scots – this one and this one. They are well worth a listen, both to get some background in how Scots and local dialects were suppressed, but also how people are refreshing the language with new terms as society changes.

Lingthusiams merch shirt. Would have preferred a rhotic joke but this one’s pretty good.

There seems to have been a bit of a resurgence in the recognition and preservation of Scots in recent years. My kids got The Gruffalo in Scots through their school and I wasn’t particularly convinced, it was a weirdly inconsistent mix of east and west coast words and some I’d never heard of. However the whole idea was to encourage kids to think about, learn about and use Scots so as far as that goes it was a good thing. (BTW The Highway Rat is much better than the Gruffalo) I don’t want my kids thinking that there is anything wrong, shameful or old-fashioned about the way their grandparents speak.

In fact when my youngest was learning to talk, she happened to pick up a word for ‘garment covering the legs’ whilst in Dundee, so her word was “breeks” for ages. They still refer to drains in the street as “cundies” because that’s a far better and more specific word. They can be heard to mutter “oot ma road” when someone is in their way. They know what a fleg and an oxter are and what it means if something is foostie.

Blast from the past. This book, whilst not uncontroversial, does somewhat capture the Dundonian tongue.

Last week I was interpreting a college class during which the lecturer relayed an anecdote about being handed a “muckle folder all coverered in stoor”. It was fantastic to hear. For too long that would have been considered language unbecoming of a lecturer, but she was speaking in a way that was natural to her and in that context – using a story from her experience to make a point relevant to the lesson – it was perfectly fitting.

There’s a concept in linguistics called “code-switching” – basically adjusting your language/dialect/way of speaking in different situations. I learned about this in an early sign language class. The teacher explained the concept and asked if we could think of any examples. All I had to say is, “well, I’m from Dundee…” and everyone in the room immediately understood. Dundonians aren’t quite bilingual, but we certainly do code-switch to a significant degree when speaking to any non-Dundonian. We are by no means the only ones, many groups do it for various reasons and it can be natural and easy or forced and exhausting. That experience gave me an understanding and appreciation of the variations in our language as well as the attitudes and perceptions that go along with these.

I’m making more of an effort to use dialect words and phrases with my kids. I don’t want them to be forgotten or lost with their grandparents. Passing on my Dundonian is part of passing on my heritage and culture, just as much as introducing them to the Beano, talking really fast and forcing them to follow the fates and fortunes (mostly fates) of a 2nd rate football team that play in tangerine and black. Any excuse to tell them to go “awa’n bile yer heid”.


Awa’n bile yer heid – Go away and boil your head – get out of here/don’t be silly

Breeks – Trousers

Fleg – Fright

Foostie – Gone off (food etc)

Muckle – Large

Orrie – Uncouth

Oot ma road – Get out of my way

Oxter – Armpit

Stoor – Dust


A few years ago a Centre for Confidence was launched in Scotland.  At the time I thought this was another pointless initiative, a waste of money that could be better spent on essential services.  However on reflection I’m not sure it is such a bad idea.  I’m not aware exactly what the Centre has done in the last few years, I haven’t seem much publicity of its activities, but I do think that addressing the poor self-confidence and self-belief of my fellow Scots is something that is badly needed.

I was thinking about myself recently, and how my lack of confidence has probably held me back in many ways.  I am not particularly shy or retiring in general, but neither am I outgoing or extroverted.  Whatever innate personality traits I may have been endowed with there is also something in my upbringing and in the culture that surrounds me that contributes to this lack of confidence.

Neither of my parents are particularly confident.  My father still hates making calls on the phone to people other than friends or family.   My mother has her comfort zone and rarely strays outwith this.  My extended family are all generally quite quiet, reserved people.  Our family gatherings never turn into wild parties, dancing on tables or karaoke.  Weddings never feature drunkenness, fights or smashed glasses.  So I wasn’t brought up in an environment where people were outgoing, loud or forward.

Even at school I didn’t encounter a culture of self-confidence or self-belief.  Primary school laid much more emphasis on order, discipline and conformity than expression, exploration or individuality.  I left with a good basic education, I was well-behaved and had a respect for authority.  Don’t get me wrong, these things all benefited me in numerous ways and I wouldn’t have wanted to be without them, but it would also have been nice to have been nurtured into developing my creative side, or having instilled in me the thought that the world was my oyster.

Instead, aged 12, I went on to Secondary School where all thought of oysters were beaten out of me and even the order and discipline had vanished.  When I hear people now talk of their schools being all about pressure to do well in exams, the organised trips to universities, visits from ex-pupils who have gone on to be doctors, scientists or artists I am somewhat envious.  My secondary school memories include a teacher getting attacked by a pupil with a brick, my chemistry teacher getting set on fire while another pupil got locked in a cupboard and being told by the careers teacher that I should be a glazier and by the depute head that I should be a secretary.  Add into this mix that I was short, had a bad haircut, eczema, unfashionable clothes, liked weird music (weird to the other pupils who all liked Take That and 2 Unlimited, I liked Deacon Blue and REM) and you have one teenager distinctly lacking in confidence.

Ok the school was in a bit of a rough area, and most pupils were from “deprived” backgrounds, but that’s no excuse for not building a culture of confidence and self-worth in pupils.  Some teachers were excellent and inspiring as teachers should be, but others were lazy, uninterested and ablaze.  There was no particular expectation that any of us would go to university, most people in my year left after the minimum 4 years, others stayed on because they couldn’t think of anything else to do, but most eventually drifted off to various courses at the local college.  There was no culture of dreams, achievement or belief that if you worked hard you could reach the top.  Back then I didn’t really even know what the top was.  I wanted to be a journalist, but would have been happy with a job on the local paper.  It didn’t occur to me to aim for anything more, because no-one around me was doing that, or suggested that I could or should.  I didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to imagine anything else would be possible.

I did realise that I had to get out of my home town, in fact I got out of the country and spent a gap year working in Sweden then came back and started at university in Glasgow.  I got involved with the student newspaper but soon realised that I was in an ultra-competitive environment where I just didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to stand out.  I knew I was a decent writer and I had desk-top publishing skills that not many people had at that time (remember this was 1998, we had about 5 computers between us, no-one had laptops,  we barely had dial-up internet and only the rich kids had mobile phones) but I didn’t have the balls to march up to the president of the student union and demand an answer, or blag my way into King Tuts to cover the latest band.  I was up against people who had gone to private school, were Head Boy and Chief Prefect or whatever, who had fathers who were solicitors and who had landed an internship with the Scotsman for their summer holidays.  I had barely even read the Scotsman before I was 19.   I did that for 2 years then got frustrated that I was being bypassed by people who were not as good as me but who could shout louder.

My degree was in Politics, but I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to become a professional politician.  Again the kind of students who got into student politics or local politics were the ones that could blag, smarm and push their way into positions and curry favour with those in power.  They knew how to walk the walk and talk the talk.  I didn’t and didn’t have the faintest clue where to start.  I have since met people my age who have succeeded in politics and they come across are rather over-confident, arrogant, smug individuals so maybe it’s a good thing that didn’t work out for me?

Things have definitely improved for me in recent years, as I’ve got older and gained more experience in life I have found I am more self-assured.  Forging your own path in life and being in a workplace of your choosing rather than a school or university setting where you are surrounded by peers that you constantly compare yourself to makes a difference.  But the fact remains that I am not alone in this, I think the Institute is correct in saying that we have a crisis of confidence here, mostly affecting young people from less well-off backgrounds, and this goes hand-in-hand with under-achievement.

Well this has turned into a far longer post that I anticipated and it has definitely got more biography in it that I wanted.  Oh well, congratulations if you have read this far, please make use of the comments box to add your views!

London and stupid parochial Scottish attitudes

On one of our local radio stations last week they were discussing the story of a woman who gave birth in the London Underground system.  The main theme of their comments was outrage that apparently no-one helped her.  Cue presenters and members of the public declaring that this was typical of Londoners, how it would never happen in Scotland and how they would never live in such a dreadful place as London.

This kind of attitude really annoys me, because although it may be one of the few instances where Scots believe themselves to be the superior people, it is essentially based on nothing more than false generalisation and stereotypes.

I lived in London during 2003-4 and since then I visit 2 or 3 times a year.  I always thoroughly enjoy my time there.  I have never once encountered negative attitudes from anyone about being a Scot (though people do seem to think I’m Irish a lot….no idea why) beyond a few jokes but I am by no means alone in receiving them and people are generally able to take it as well as dish it out.  I found the people that I studied with, worked with and spend time with to be, well, just people – they are the usual assortment of kind, friendly, bad-tempered and boring that you’ll find anywhere.  Those I encountered in shops, on buses or on the tube are sometimes rude, but mostly indifferent – but then they are complete strangers so I expect that.  If they were anything other I would have find it odd.

Having lived mostly in Glasgow in recent years I can tell you that some of the steroetypes about here are true, but equally some of them are false.  I have never got into a fight, nor been mugged, stabbed or otherwise attacked.  I have seen some violent incidents out on the street of a Saturday night, but I’d defy you to go to any town or city centre and not see something similar.   I did once witness an attempted armed robbery, but other passers-by thought that it must be Taggart filming and they ignored it and walked by.  A colleague of mine last year complained that she couldn’t travel by bus any more because despite being 8 months pregnant no-one gave up their seat for her.

So when I hear such comments about how Glaswegians are so friendly and Londoners are all so selfish and mean it really doesn’t match up with my experience and I think it is quite damaging when “responsible” radio presenters allow such attitudes to be repeated, further entrenching those views in people who may never have been to London or met people from the city.