On learning Gaelic as an adult – some personal observations and experiences. Prompted in part by the Duolingo “explosion” and the question some may be asking about what to do next; in part by recent Facebook discussions I’ve witnessed about different ways of learning and their relative merits; and also to mark a broader point about multilingualism, as illustrated by the recent film I made around the International Festival of Indigenous and Endangered Languages in Shillong.
Here are my points:
- For me, learning any new language after your first is, by definition, about developing your bilingualism, not replacing one monolingualism with another. That means you have choices to make. You won’t necessarily make the same one on every occasion.
- Different learners in different places have different reasons for learning, and different opportunities. One size cannot fit all.
- I started, at the age of 29 while living in Birmingham, with the correspondence course Gàidhlig Bheò (perhaps the Duolingo of its pre-Internet times?), and recordings of Can Seo – both mediated through English. These gave me a pretty solid structural foundation on which to build.
- Moving to mainland Scotland, I used to listen to BBC Radio nan Gàidheal every morning. This tuned my ears to a Gaelic unfiltered by translation or any kind of teaching process. (This was well before the days of YouTube, and the opportunities it later opened up for the likes of Guthan nan Eilean/Island Voices.)
- Having said all that, things really took off for me when I moved “back home” to Uist, my mother’s birthplace. There are still big challenges, but I think it would be difficult to find a better real-life environment for using the language than a community in which Gaelic is still spoken on a daily basis, where you can hear it in the shops, on the buses etc. Negotiating the opportunities to use it is part of Gaelic learner life. Consider it an additional skill you need to develop, if speaking with people raised with Gaelic is part of your reason for learning it. The still broader point is that a time comes when a successful learner takes matters into their own hands, and makes their own decisions about how to take things forward, given the range of options open to them, and what they want to get out of the experience.
- Lastly, speaking more than one language habitually, and therefore switching appropriately between them, is commonplace throughout the world. Nobody who is featured in this film (presented in Gaelic and subtitled in English but with several others included), speaks less than two languages, and probably most of them speak more – again on a daily basis. It’s a liberating experience to view the world through additional linguistic eyes. I would encourage any previously monolingual learner of Gaelic to enjoy their new binocular vision – though, for well-defined testing (or indeed training) purposes, you may wish to cover one eye from time to time to put the other through its solo paces. Good luck, agus gur math a thèid leibh!
I experienced a strange sensory assault when I went back to India at the age of 20 as a York University student, having lived there as a child until the age of 4. Strange because the distinctive “new” smells and tastes I came across, like rose-flavoured lassi, were not actually new to me at all, but had lain undisturbed in some long unused part of the brain to the point where I had forgotten that I knew them. It’s hard to capture in words the sensation of discovering something already familiar in what purports to be new. But it was exciting.
42 years later I’ve just had a similar experience, with the overdue fitting of a pair of NHS hearing aids in Ospadal Uibhist agus Bharraigh. (“Overdue” in the sense that I should probably have sought help years ago. I have “moderate to severe” hearing loss at higher frequencies, like my dad before me – and his dad before him. This means it’s difficult for me to hear the difference between language sounds whose distinctiveness is evidenced at the upper end of a vocal spectrogram – like voiceless th and s, for example, in “thing” and “sing”.)
Even as the audiologist was still talking me through the fitting process, I found myself “rediscovering” that the word “still” does indeed start with an s. Of course, this is something that, conceptually, I “knew”. It’s just that the brain, which is a very clever piece of kit when it comes to dealing with language, had disguised from me that my failing ears were no longer picking up important distinctions, by using the redundancy which characterises all language to supply a best guess, usually accurate, at which sound I should be hearing, and allowing me to “think” that I actually had. So, although I wasn’t physically hearing a clear s, nine times out of ten I probably thought I was (if I thought about it at all). Quite disconcerting then, in a pleasant kind of way, to be confronted with the evidence of a “real” s exactly where you’d expect it, and the realisation that the sound I had thought was always there had only been supplied to me by my own imagination.
Add to that linguistic complexity the simple pleasures of clocking the starlings twittering away as soon as I walked out of the hospital, or noticing for the first time in a long while the range of sounds your shoes make when they scuff the doormat when you get home. It’s quite an intoxicating auditory brew. And, as with my earlier Indian experience and the way it rekindled memories from infancy, so again I found myself reminded of an earlier period of my life, when hearing the sound of birdsong was an unexceptional experience. I hadn’t particularly noticed its absence, but again there was something very refreshing about this reacquaintance with a familiar thing.
Then in a moment of serendipity, just as I was pondering this strange coming together of revived sensory perception and uncovered self-deception and its capacity to stimulate vivid reminiscence, and wondering if there was a name for it, Jon Blake went and revealed a hitherto unheard 40-year old recording of the Rit Fal Dals, the folk group that he and I and Chris Heron sang and played in when we were all students at York… And not just a recording – he also had 40-year old photos of the band and the city, which – as you do – he’d put together into a nice wee picture sequence on YouTube. A man of many talents. The hits have since been pouring in from the York Past & Present Facebook group, and probably other sources too. It seems I’m not alone in taking delight in recovering remembered but repressed sounds or sights.
(Jon has some other Rit Fal Dal tracks from the same recording session on his Soundcloud site.)
So can anyone help me out here? Is there a name for this syndrome, in which revived or remembered sensations stimulate forgotten memories, simultaneously affirming the enriching power of your sensory capacities while exposing their liability to wither, conceal and deceive? Until someone points me to a higher authority, I claim its discovery (or perhaps invention) and name it the Rit Fal Dal Effect… Ta dah!
Co-writing “Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal” for BBC TV in the late eighties was a big and ambitious piece of work for me. Obviously a major lucky break, you might think it would be hard for an ageing one-time language teacher to cap that now. However, in terms of personal significance, I feel my latest recording venture, “Saoghal Thormoid” (“Norman’s World”), is certainly up there with it, albeit on a much more intimate scale.
Looking back, and perhaps strange to relate, in many ways the former project set the latter up, being a first serious professional engagement with “community language” or “mother tongue” issues, especially in the context of recording technology and what it can potentially mean for one of my linguistic obsessions, the Primacy of Speech. Being filmed entirely in these islands, from London to Glasgow and at various points in-between, I also allowed myself to hope that we were doing something to challenge or subvert any complacent conceit that Britain is properly a “monolingual” country. Anyway, little did I imagine then, as a newly begun learner of Gaelic, that I would one day get to sit, chat, and record with the iconic Norman Maclean over an extended period as he chronicles a remarkable life and reflects upon it – and that in my own mother’s mother tongue, a language that, typologically, feels like it’s as far away as you can get from English while staying in the Indo-European “family”.
There’s plenty of laughter and entertainment along the way, of course, but it’s well worth listening to Norman for many other reasons than that: vividly recalled childhood memories of mid-Twentieth Century Glasgow and the Hebrides; open introspection on the community relations issues of those days, and their lingering effects; wide-ranging discussion of creative influences in music, literature, and popular entertainment; all brought right up to date with acute, and sometimes cutting, commentary on current affairs, but topped off with a generous commitment to the continued sharing of cultural gems. And all in language that I, as my mother’s son, can only describe as beautiful. Strange to think that, if he’d been sent just a few miles further north than Benbecula for his wartime primary education, she might have been one of his first teachers.
I really recommend giving the videos a shot (using the transcripts if necessary), but for those who prefer reading to listening, or perhaps enjoy both equally, either or both of these autobiographical works by Norman himself will provide fascinating parallel insights: The Leper’s Bell: The Autobiography of a Changeling and Eavesdropping on Myself: An Outsider’s Boyhood in Glasgow. But you’ll need to content yourself with English in order to access these written accounts!
مگر کل میں نے ایک نیا تریکا سیکھ لیا، گوگل ٹرانسلیٹ اور گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کی مدد سے. پہلا قدم یہ ہے کہ میں، گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کا استمعال کر کے، اپنی چٹھی ہندی میں لکھوں. پھر میں کاپی اینڈ پیسٹ کر کے اس چٹھی کو گوگل ٹرانسلٹ میں رکھونگا، اردو میں ترجمہ کرنے کے لئے
ہندی اور اردو کافی نزدیک ہیں، اس لئے گوگل ٹراسلےٹ کی غلطیاں کچھ کم ہوں گی. پھر بھی ایک اور قدم کی ضرورت ہے. جو بھی اردو گوگل ٹراسلےٹہے سے نکل آتی ہے وہ تو میں پھر سے کاپی کرتا ہوں، اس ٹائم گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کا استمعال کر کے. اس تریکے سے میں چیک کر سکتا ہوں کہ گوگل ٹراسلےٹ کا آؤٹ پٹ ٹھیکہ ہے
بس، اردو میں لکھی ہوئی چٹھی بن گی ہے. اپنے دوستوں کو بھیج سکتا ہوں
اور اردو میں جواب مل جائے تو؟ یہ تو دوسرا سوال ہے
A public Facebook post by my daughter, Morag. I think I’ll just leave it here for a while…
What she had to say about it:
“I hope this might bring some light relief to my small corner of the internet as we try to make sense of the grave and muddled state of affairs we seem to be living in. On Saturday, following the funeral of my dear Great Uncle John, my Dad, Gordon, and his two brothers Stephen and Gerald presented a song, ‘Susannah’s a Funniful Man’, that has often been their party piece at large family occasions over the years. I know nothing about its origins, except that it comes from a rich heritage of silly songs and games of rural English vicars, but I think it basically speaks for itself…enjoy, if you will…”
I would only add that, while Dad (from whom we got the song) and Uncle John often took opposing political viewpoints, and might have taken differing views on this latest “Brexit” question too, they remained firm friends always, as well as brothers-in-law. Their religious calling certainly gave them both a profound respect for serious matters and considered debate. Truth, or the diligent search for it, was important to them, but they also shared a delight in silly absurdities. I can’t help feeling that gave them a wider perspective than our and younger generations can sometimes manage, despite (or perhaps because of?) our “always on” social media connectedness.
Why do solfa and sargam have the same name for the supertonic? A common Indo-European linguistic root buried deep in the past, parallel evolution, or just plain coincidence? It’s this kind of question, once formed and lodged, that can keep you awake for hours…
Most people reading this will probably have heard “Doe, a deer, a female deer” enough times to know that it’s followed by “a drop of golden sun” – “ray” (or re, as it’s generally written in solfa), and can probably go all the way up to the “drink with jam and bread” (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti) that brings us back to do, do, do, do etc.
Compare and contrast with the Qawwali style of singing of North India and Pakistan, in which the lead singers launch into improvisations using the sargam system (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni). In this Coke Studio fusion piece you get a taste at 4 minutes in, and then again from 5.55 onwards when Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan set up a ma ma ga ga re re sa riff, and then let rip right through to the end.
So how is it that the second note, the supertonic, has the same name – re – in both systems?
Wikipedia tries to be our friend here, but doesn’t answer the question – though it does pose an alternative to the conventionally advanced explanation of the solfa terms, by comparing them with the Arabic system (dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’). A cursory glance establishes that the Arabic system appears to be much closer to solfa than to the Hindustani sargam, so perhaps we can pass over my vague Indo-European “language family history” idea – romantic in its own way, but overly fanciful, as so often the case…
While on the subject Wikipedia does also point out that there is also a “home-grown” Gaelic sort of equivalent here in Scotland in the form of canntaireachd.
And is the Scottish supertonic also “re”?
Well, no, it’s much more complicated than that, though Barnaby Brown, an early visitor to Ceòlas, evidently has a good handle on it in his notation guide, and has also been exploring Indian links. It turns out there are no easy answers to my sleep-disturbing question, but I do have an excuse to finish with a couple of clips of South Uist’s own Rona Lightfoot, who is a real Ceòlas stalwart…
Here’s a nice piece of work from Education Scotland with an audio clip of Rona:
And here she is again, in YouTube style, with Phil Cunningham adding his own brand of edge-softening “fusion”.
Rona really does know her musical stuff, is grounded, and has a lovely voice. Suitably soothed, I can go back to sleep…
Here’s a question, prompted by witnessing yet more Facebook fractiousness – never in short supply when threads weave around “independence”, or “nationalism” (whether in the context of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, or the UK’s with the rest of Europe). Does the giddy whirlpool of identity politics ever stop swirling through the social media? I can do without it.
One of the things that made me a willing island-dweller is the enhanced sense of detachment from attention-seeking, loyalty-demanding “centres of power” – be they based in Brussels, London, Edinburgh, or even Stornoway. I may or may not agree that the various responsibilities the big towns claim for themselves are fairly distributed. The point is that, even if I do, I clearly don’t need to “identify” myself exclusively with the polity or jurisdiction over which each one exercises its “authority”. That’s fundamentally not sensible, in my view. The real world is mobile and multi-polar. Our loyalties and attention shift and divide – and properly so.
This is not new. Take Gaelic, for example – an important part of my current cultural make-up (as I’ve mentioned once or twice elsewhere). One of the many highlights of a recent visit from Irish language enthusiasts was seeing how close we could get to Teampull Chaluim Chille in Balivanich (Baile a’ Mhanaich – The Monk’s Town). The name alone evokes a “pan-Gaelic” past that pre-dates notions of “Ireland” and “Scotland” as the separate “nations” we think of today. But history moved on, and while we may still feel the pull of cultural and linguistic affinity as Gaels, there probably aren’t many around today who will profess a loyalty to “Gaeldom” alone, wholly to the exclusion of other cultural constructs – such as “Scotland”, or “Ireland”, or even indeed “Britain”, or “Europe”.
As it turned out, the land around the Teampull is so boggy that most of us didn’t properly complete our mini-pilgrimage, with the noble exception of Mairtín. His perseverance paid off though, as he got some stunning shots there that sit very prettily alongside the rest of his Benbecula album. Surely we can all recognise and acknowledge the beauty to be found here, irrespective of how we each place ourselves “culturally” or “nationally”. We all have the capacity to appreciate others’ work and worth, and that seems to me like a better basis on which to construct healthy relationships, and so reasonable dialogue, than any over-emphasised or falsely attributed “cultural differences” that tend only to solidify as self-fulfilling prophecies. I wish folk would stop disrespecting other people’s integrity or intelligence on the basis of how they divide up their communal identities. It’s disturbing. I may be about to relieve my FB friends list of a few folk (none pictured here) who can’t seem to break out of a vicious-looking circle. Time to set course away from a “virtual Coire Bhreacain” being fed by dodgy-looking ethno-essentialist undercurrents…
(Disclaimer: These are my own musings. None of the gaisgich pictured above should be implicated in any political, constitutional, or other conclusions that readers may wish to draw from them. I think it’s fair to say the consensus was that we had a jolly good time…)
Divisive name-calling in the blogosphere or “social media” does nothing to enhance what’s billed as the most important political and constitutional debate we’ve had in Scotland in hundreds of years. In a global context, how two of the larger parts of these smallish islands choose to structure their relationship is probably not very significant, but I do have some regard for Bill Clinton’s reported view that the way the debate is conducted is at least as important as the result of the vote itself. I think it may be more so. After all, as wiser people on both sides have said, once it’s over we will have to live with each other. And, without being too pious about it, that does mean minding our language, and treating each other with due respect.
Take the word “Brit”, for example. I dislike the dismissive and scornful way it’s being used by some. OK, in part it’s personal. After all, I myself am an English-speaking, Gaelic-speaking, Hindi-speaking “Brit”. While the first three elements of that package are accomplishments in which I take a lot of pleasure, the fourth is a simple matter of mixed parental (English and Uibhisteach) fact, a badge of neither honour nor disgrace, and certainly not deserving of knee-jerk animosity from those claiming to be on the progressive side of political history.
But there’s more to it than my own personal sensitivities. I am far from alone. In fact, it appears that “Brit-bashers” are quite simply behind the curve on basic demographic trends. According to 2011 census data, as reported by Mark Easton, it’s younger people living in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods who are the most likely to identify as British – and plainly not because of some sentimental hankering after the days of the openly racist Raj, gone long before they were even born. Far from it. “British” is now owned and used as a handy catch-all label that embraces a wide range of heritage ethnicities or nationalities on these islands. (The BBC report deals mainly with more detailed figures for England and Wales, but a quick check of the Scottish census site suggests similarly higher proportions of British identification amongst the same ethnic groups.)
Twisting a lyric from my own youthful exposure to Bob and Marcia, it appears 21st Century Brits are increasingly Young and Black – and dare I say Gifted with a contemporary identity that has moved on from either glory or shame in past imperial history. I’m now pretty old, evidently white, and of questionable talent, but this kind of inclusive and multicultural Britishness seems rather positive to me. To knock it for no good reason looks strangely out of touch in this day and age.
Could it be among the reasons why the youth vote may not pan out as first predicted?
“From another island, from another time”… I’ve enjoyed putting together a wee Gaelic “series” for our nascent community radio station here in Uist, featuring favourite tracks out of Kingston, Jamaica, from the sixties and seventies. I’ve nicked a short extract here to put on SoundCloud – just as a wee taster.
It features Clancy Eccles with “Fattie Fattie”. Other tracks in the series are “Red, Red Wine” (Tony Tribe), “Monkey Man” (Toots and the Maytals), “Sweet Sensation” (The Melodians), and “Johnny Too Bad” (The Slickers). Younger readers may remember the UB40 covers of some of these, if not the originals…
It’s a bit of a trip down memory lane for me – mixed memories to be honest. The music was great, in starkly disciplined and danceable contrast to the self-indulgent and seemingly stoned “oeuvres” of the likes of Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead, the preferred listening of many of my would-be hippy schoolmates. But like them I wore the “grammar school uniform” of the times (shoulder-length hair and a greatcoat) – and so was an obvious target for the other new counter-culture, the “hippy-bashing” skinheads. I remember a few high-tension stand-offs on the meaner streets of outwardly douce Didcot and Wallingford…
How incongruous looking back, when the skinhead image is now so firmly established as a badge of identity for many violent and white-supremacist groupings across Europe and North America, to clock that the founding members took their musical inspiration from Kingston, Jamaica…
The soundcloud clip offers a short taste of the featured song. Here’s a YouTube recording of the full track. Check it out…
And you can listen to An Radio here. (Click on An Radio Player.)
What a flower show this past few weeks. You can’t beat Uist fields and roadsides for “Gàirnealaireachd Ghàidhealach“! Click to enlarge…
Might anyone wish to use any of these pictures, that should be fine. Just drop me a line – and give me a credit… 🙂 .