Why I'm learning Scottish Gaelic

Learning Gaelic

Although I've lived in Oban since 1994 and have been surrounded by the language of Gaelic and the Gaelic speaking community I never had the urge to learn it. I understood a few words from hearing the Calmac announcements (Tapadh Leibh), seeing road signs, saying Slainte mhath when drinking an alcholic beverage,  and looking at maps, but it was a combination of factors that started me on my Gaelic learning journey.

I have recently started hillwalking in earnest. This means that I have to pronounce the names of the hills which are almost all in Gaelic. Words like 'beinn' and 'mòr' are easy to say and recognise (hill/mountain and big). Others are very difficult for a non Gaelic speaker to even attempt although of course we all do, to the consternation of the Gaelic speakers. It isn't just the hills that have Gaelic names though - there is so much detail about the landscape that is hidden in plain sight if you just know what the words mean.

Another important step was talking to some girls who were pupils at Tobermory High School on the Isle of Mull. They were chatting about learning Gaelic and how they could understand the conversations the teachers were having even when they weren't in class. I probably made some passing comment about meaning to learn it one day and they said Duolingo is really good. I had heard of Duolingo but don't think I was aware of it having Gaelic as an option.

Early in the year I joined a friend in his campervan, and he always had BBC Radio nan Gàidheal playing even though he didn't understand a word of it. He just liked the sound and I think he felt it added to his experience of travelling round Scotland. I felt quite sad that the only words I could recognise were agus (and) and a smattering of others, mostly the ones that sounded like the English equivalent!

Yet another friend (you see how much you can influence other people!) gave me the Gaelic poetry book 'Hallaig' by Sorley Maclean for a Christmas present. It has lived in my loo for a while now because there is a direct English translation on every page which is beautiful enough on its own, but now I pick it up and see how much I can understand of the Gaelic and it continally surprises me when I recognise words and sometimes whole sentences. And presumably this is not easy Gaelic!

It was when I was out walking with friend Ross Christie, a fluent Gaelic speaker himself,  that I was convinced of the benefit of starting to learn. We were walking up two hills Meall Lighiche and Sgùrr na h-Ulaidh. I pronounced them incorrectly and instead of just brushing it off Ross made me repeat them over and over again until I had them right. I could see how important this was for him! He also spoke of the way you could read the landscape if you know that the Gaelic is showing it's a boggy area or a rounded hill, or even the colour it will be. When I said how difficult it was to read and pronounce the words he said that when you are learning 'it just clicks' and I thought I want to get to a place where it just clicks.

I have a friend Calum Maclean who is very famous in Gaelic speaking circles as a fluent speaker himself. Again he has been quietly encouraging me to learn and he is very clever with the way he weaves the language into his day to day activities. He is a presenter on the BBC Alba programme Speak Gaelic and also makes Gaelic language programmes centred on swimming and photography. He brings an element of fun into learning and has a wide appeal and I highly recommend seeking him out on BBC Alba and also social media under the name @caldamac.

How I have found learning Gaelic

It is very early days but I am loving it! I am the kind of person who gets fixated on things and Duolingo has been exactly the right way for me to begin learning. The timeframe is your own but you get rewarded with shiny XP, and gems and daily streaks and moving up leagues and this is all the motivation I need! And instead of just spending time on a game I am actually learning a useful skill, and the more I learn the more I understand and the more learning I want to do! Also Duolingo gives very few clues about the grammar - you have to almost work it out for yourself, so I have also been looking up grammar rules independently and picking things up here and there. Gradually things have been sticking and I am constantly surprised to see whole sentences with spellings and accents correct coming out of my brain and onto my phone. Speaking it is very different though and I do still struggle with pronounciations and tenses and lenition!

One of the things I find most fascinating is the direct translations of many of the English words and phrases used up here. I grew up in Cornwall and when I first came up there were a few things that were different straightaway. One was that people asked where you stay. In England you stay somewhere temporarily but live in a place permanently. Here in Scotland is means to live permanently (as well as stay temporarily) and that is because the verb to live and stay in Gaelic is the same - a' fuireach. Also you will often hear people saying 'Right enough' which is a phrase I quickly picked up, and I was excited to see that it is a direct translation from the Gaelic 'ceart gu leòr'.

The Speak Gaelic series on BBC Alba has been very helpful and I also listen to their podcasts on BBC Sounds. Watching children's programmes in Gaelic is helpful as well; I particularly like The Moomins. They use 'obh obh' a lot (oh dear).


These are things I have found useful. I'm sure I'll discover many more!


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