Catching Up

Learning a language can be a slow process.  Sometimes it feels like you’ve been working at it for ages, but you don’t feel like you’ve made any progress.  That’s what the last few weeks (months, even?) have felt like for me.    Except then I went to the Gaelic College weekend, and somehow the language learning felt like it had caught up to me.  Or maybe I had caught up to it.

Somehow the words were there, I was thinking in Gaelic, speaking in Gaelic, baking chocolate cake in Gaelic, and I wondered how that was happening, given that before the weekend I had felt so far behind in my learning.  I’ve decided (at least for now, until a better explanation presents itself) that the environment had a lot to do with it.

Personally, I find it so much easier as a learner to speak a language when I’m in a supportive environment, such as the Gaelic College weekends.  With so many people there speaking Gaelic most of the time, in and out of class, it’s easier to get into the mentality of all Gaelic, all the time.  It sort of feels like a switch gets flipped, almost, since I end up mentally preparing myself beforehand in a way (and not by studying).  I’m sure that if I had even a few weeks of real, full-on immersion, I’d be set.

By contrast, when I am removed from a Gaelic setting, I find it extremely difficult to speak the way I want to, and the way I know I can.  Even the first day after the weekend at the Gaelic College, someone asked me in Gaelic how the weekend was, and all I seemed to manage was a smile, a nod, and maybe a hesitant “glé mhath” – and even that only after I had stalled with the smile-and-nod trick.  Perhaps that’s part of why I felt I wasn’t making progress – I just wasn’t in the right mindset, or the right environment.

Even though it may not feel like you’re making progress, if you put yourself in the right environment where you can practice in a real, supportive way, you might be surprised at how much is there that you didn’t realize you’d picked up.



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Joining the Conversation

Many years ago, one of my professors at university said that starting grad school and becoming an academic is like joining a conversation. No matter what your discipline, there are already people out there who have done research and are talking about whatever it is you want to study.  And it’s up to the student to do some background research to find out about who is already involved in the conversation, what’s been said already, and how to make a useful contribution to the ongoing conversation.

In the academic world, it’s really easy to spend a lot of time reading papers trying to gain an understanding of the conversation you want to join, and then also trying to stay current and keep up with the conversation as it grows and more research is published.   The amount of effort needed to get up to speed and maintain your knowledge of the conversation depends a lot on how big the conversation is, how long it’s been going on, how many people are a part of it, and probably how many other conversations overlap with it.

As far as I have seen, the subset of academic research on (Scottish) Gaelic (in Nova Scotia) is not huge in comparison to other disciplines that are more popular.  Even when you consider the academic research on Scottish Gaelic or just “Gaelic” in general, the amount of academic work is still quite small.  Partly this is because Gaelic has only recently started to show up in academic works — the academic conversation about Gaelic, and certainly Gaelic in Nova Scotia is really only just beginning. 

Although the academic conversation may be in its formative stages, there has certainly been plenty of discussion about Scottish Gaelic at the community level, and that conversation has quite literally been going on for centuries, in Scotland, Nova Scotia, and beyond.  It’s the kind of conversation that doesn’t get recorded in academic papers for review and revision and records; it’s the kind of conversation that gets passed around by word of mouth between communities and from one generation to the next and develops a strong history. It’s the kind of conversation that speaks to people and conveys a sense of importance to those who listen.  It’s the kind of conversation you can really only join by being in the community itself, and learning the background and history from those who have lived it, and are living it.

One day I may decide to join the academic conversation about Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia, but the reason I’m here, “Living Nova Scotia Gaelic” (in the words of my website title), is to learn what I can about the conversation that is happening locally.  ‘Cause I won’t learn it anywhere else!

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Level Up

One very common phenomenon in language learning is the “plateau” — the stage where a learner’s progress starts to level out.  When anyone first starts learning a language, they will learn a lot very quickly, and they make huge gains at the beginning.  As they progress, the learning becomes more complex, feels more challenging, and lots of hurdles can start to get in the way (like pronunciation for example) so it doesn’t always seem like they are learning as fast as they did when they started.

Part of the reason for this is that people, especially adults, seem to want to default to the “I’m not very good yet” attitude and they will try to stay at a level they are comfortable at, rather than pushing themselves to keep moving forward.  So it’s easy to keep signing up for the beginner level intro course over and over again instead of moving up to a more challenging level.  Even though you might not feel ready for it, that extra step is going to provide a learner with a lot more information that will ultimately help in better understanding the beginner level material.

As a linguist, I’m very aware of this phenomenon, and didn’t really think I’d get caught up in that mentality.  Imagine my surprise when, at the Gaelic Weekend, I was bumped up not one, but two levels!  I didn’t want to do it.  I thought there was no way I’d be able to participate or interact with the “Intermediate 2” speakers, that I wouldn’t be able to hold my own.  That’s exactly the kind of attitude that gets you to the plateau stage.  So I went for it, thinking that I’d just sneak into the other class if it was too much for me.  But it wasn’t!

To be fair, I had a really fantastic teacher – probably one of the best – and he wasn’t teaching at an “intermediate” level, I don’t think. Or at least, I didn’t notice much difference in his teaching style/method from the other classes I’ve taken.  And two other students were bumped up just like me.  But what really surprised me is that some of the other people in the class, who really were at an intermediate level, seemed to struggle with the same things that us “beginners” did.  

It’s oddly comforting to see that more experienced speakers have difficulty with some areas – to see that the people you think have it all figured out are really still learners themselves.  At the same time, it’s somewhat discomforting to see that even after making it to the next level, it’s going to continue to be challenging, although maybe in a different way.  But I think one of the biggest challenges is for a learner to overcome that desire to be comfortable by pushing themselves to the next level anyway, even though it is intimidating.  I think it’s probably one of the best rewards though, to get to that next level and realize that you actually can do it. And maybe you should have yourself a little graduation party while you’re at it.

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And We’re Back

Okay, okay, I know it’s been a while, but after a summer hiatus, I’m back in Nova Scotia, back to being employed, and now, back to the blog!

Next weekend, I will be attending the Gaelic Weekend at the Gaelic College, and I am very much looking forward to it!  Hopefully it will be the start of many classes and events this fall that I will be participating in – and of course if you know of anything happening around these parts, share the knowledge!  I can’t get out to everything, or as much as I want to (due to limited transportation and funds), but the earlier I know about things, the easier it is to plan it into my calendar (and budget)!

Here are a couple of links for you: one is a recently published article from the Cape Breton Post announcing the new CEO of the Gaelic College, and the second is a link to the Gaelic College’s survey where you can give them your feedback about their programs and cetera.  The more we can support the language, the better!

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The Trouble With Counting

It’s really hard to count the number of languages in the world, and it’s just as hard to count the number of speakers of a language (sometimes even harder).

It is generally agreed among linguists that there are about 6000 – 7000 languages in the world.  At least, that’s according to the official count.   But even the experts who do the counting and the classifying are usually quick to point out that it’s more like a really good “best guess” than a hard fact.

Counting languages is tough because, really, how do you tell the difference between a language and a dialect?  It’s certainly not easy, as political, social, economic, and geographical factors all can influence the status of a language or dialect.  A country may declare a single language as its official language, but that “one language” may be spoken entirely differently by different communities within the country – to the point that they can’t understand each other.  Or two communities may each consider their speech to be a completely separate language, while they fully understand one another and have the exact same grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.  Of course, the status of a language/dialect may change over time as well, so sometimes it’s a tough call – and that’s not even getting into what to do about different “accents” of pronunciation.

When it comes to Gaelic, most people seem to know at least two types: Scottish and Irish.  There is also Manx Gaelic, which can just be called “Manx”, just as Irish Gaelic is often referred to simply as “Irish”.  It’s funny that “Scottish” doesn’t work the same way, so you end up with a certain degree of confusion between the terms “Scottish” “Gaelic” “Scottish Gaelic” and even “Scots” (which is entirely different from Gaelic altogether).

Are the Gaelic languages separate languages? Or are they dialects? Accents? Magic pixie music?  Well, Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic are considered three separate languages. Nova Scotia Gaelic is certainly a type of Scottish Gaelic, but I don’t know if it is considered a “dialect” yet or not.  At the rate it is expanding, and with the geographical separation, I would expect that, in time, the Gaelic of Nova Scotia will reach that rebellious stage where it will start experimenting, acting out, wearing inappropriate clothes, and staying out all night until it feels it has established itself as an autonomous dialect.  Maybe one day it will even grow up to be its very own language.

As for the number of speakers… hoo boy.  I have heard estimates of the number of Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia to be anywhere from about 200 to 2000.  It’s anybody’s guess, at this point.  The trouble with counting speakers in any endangered language is that a lot of times the people who do speak those languages don’t want to admit they speak the language.  Because they are ashamed (so sad!), or because they are afraid (!!), or, these days, because they think they have forgotten it even though they used to speak it.  There may be speakers out there, but chances are a lot of them have simply become English speakers in their own minds for their own reasons.  In addition, there are people who will claim to be speakers, who actually don’t know very much at all. They may have heard their parents speaking the heritage language and learned a few words or phrases as a child, but their practical ability to use the language may be extremely limited, even though they identify themselves as a speaker.  And then there are learners – learners who are actually quite good and use the language frequently, but who say things like “oh, I’m not that good, really” or “I don’t know anything”, and thus they don’t consider themselves speakers of the language.

There really are usually very few opportunities for speakers of a heritage language to be counted.  There is the census, of course, in which people self-report their language abilities, and which serves as the “official” public record. Even those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt though.  It will be interesting to see what kind of presence Gaelic will have in the results of the newest Canadian census.

I really don’t know how many speakers of Gaelic there are in Nova Scotia, and I haven’t a clue how anyone would go about counting them effectively, efficiently, or accurately.  Maybe there could be an open-source, online registry.  Maybe a door-to-door campaign, or a special contest like those “guess how many jelly beans are in the jar” games.   Maybe a special, secret bird could be trained to fly around the province and spy on people to see if they speak Gaelic. No, that’s a bad idea.

Anyway, I may not know how many Gaelic speakers there are in Nova Scotia, but I can tell you that it is WAY more than I ever expected there to be.  Add the learners to the mix, and it’s even more.  A promising sign of things to come, even if this linguist can’t count!

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I love finding old Gaelic textbooks in the library and reading through them.  There are always interesting and entertaining passages, and I thought I’d share a few with you that I’ve come across:

“In some ways Gaelic is really much less dead than English, for the English language is so changed that were London people of 932 AD to return from the Beyond and attempt to converse with the London people of to-day, their English would seem to be some queer gibberish, but if … Inverness men of 932 AD were to return, every Gaelic-speaking Highlander would understand them…”

– Lady Elspeth Campbell 30th April 1932, in The Gaelic Phono-Grammar, Alistair MacLean, p. vi, 1932

“Many people… would like to learn Gaelic, yet they are deterred by the thought of having to wade through a grammar-book.  One can sympathise with them, for grammar is dry-as-dust to the ordinary man, but language is a living thing and, as far as possible, should be taught in a live, human way.”

– John Mackechnie, Gaelic without Groans, p. 5, 1962

“It is really not such a hard thing to learn Gaelic as some folk think.  It is quite true, I admit, that many people have spent years trying to master this beautiful old tongue and have failed. But why? Simply because they have tried to learn the language from a grammar-book and grammar is an abomination to 99 people out of 100.”

– John Mackechnie, Gaelic without Groans, p. 9, 1962

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More Resources

Here are a couple of links to some fun Gaelic language resources:

The book Sheena’s Garden:

and the Gaelic short film, The Wake of Callum MacLeod: 


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