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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:

  1. 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.
  2. Different learners in different places have different reasons for learning, and different opportunities. One size cannot fit all.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

From Bol Chaal to Saoghal Thormoid


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.

hubcLooking 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!

Me, music, and language

The hunter hunted. (When I helped Loriana get started with her fantastic blog and interview work, I didn’t expect her to turn her guns on me…) Fair game, I suppose, and if the second clip encourages others to try things out with Island Voices, then fair enough. It’s achieved something.

Part 1 on SoundCloud here:

Part 2 on SoundCloud here:




This interview  with Gordon Wells, the Project Officer of Island Voices, is given in two parts.

I. In the first part, Gordon speaks about his home made flute – the ‘ Gaelic Shakuhachi’, the Winter Blues and why he has chosen to live on the Uists.

To listen to part I (13.30 min), click here:


II. In the second part of the interview, Gordon talks about his interest in languages  and gives a very beautiful and inspiring definition of language. At the end he shares with us the background and the vision of the project Island Voices.  To listen to part II (15.30 min) click here:

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Abair spors a bh’ againn a-nochd le Carrageen agus “Gille an Fheadain Duibh” – sgeulachd le Pàdruig Moireasdan a tha ri fhaighinn san leabhar “Thugam agus Bhuam”. Chaidh a cur ann an cruth ùr dà-chànanach airson an àrd-ùrlair le Màiri Mhoireasdan agus Eairdsidh Caimbeul. Agus is iad a rinn dsioba math dheth!

Ach bha gu leòr eile an sàs sa phìos obrach seo – na sgoilearan ann an Loch nam Madadh agus Càirinis, a’ choisir aig Fèis Tir an Eòrna, Chris Spears – an neach-ealain a rinn obair ionmhalta a’ toirt beatha uamhasach dhan fhuamhaire agus dhan dràgon, Loriana Pauli – “Ban-rìgh na h-Eilbheis” – a thug puirt ùra dhuinn, gun ghuth air an obair bhidio is audio a chaidh a chur ris….  Tha liosta fhada ann.

Cha robh mi fhèin ach nam “second farmer” – ach tha fhios gur e promotion a tha sineach bho “third spear-carrier”, an triob mu dheireadh a bha mi air an àrd-ùrlar leis na Sinodun Players ann an Camelot air ais ann an 1973 – mas math mo chuimhne…

Abair na th’ ann de thàlant ann an coimhearsnachd bheag dhùthchail. Tha rudeigin sònraichte againn an seo. Agus  ’s e a’ Ghàidhlig as coireach, tha mi cinnteach. No, ga chur ann an dòigh eile, leis gu bheil dà chànan againn sa choimhearsnachd seo, tha beairteas culturach a bharrachd againn. Agus tha sin a’ tarraing dhaoine ealanta eile ann, a tha ag iarraidh a bhith a’ fuireach ann an àrainneachd a tha taiceil dha na tàlantan aca fhèin.

Cò na h-àiteachan eile ann am Breatainn far am faiceadh tu an leithid?

“दूसरी भाषाएँ”

हिन्दी चलती है – ब्रस्सल्स में भी! tools4clil के ब्लॉग से..

“Clilstore is not restricted to servicing solely the languages of the TOOLS project teams. Here’s another experiment from “HindiMovieFan” (aka Gordon Wells) with a transcript of an interview with Bollywood’s greatest movie star, Amitabh Bachchan.

So, clilstore appears to handle Hindi quite as comfortably as Arabic! Again, just click on any word to go to a dictionary entry….” (See more.)

Macaroni: Rich Linguistic Fare

Back from Pistoia nearly two weeks ago now, but Italian food is still playing on my mind in the shape of a particular kind of pasta very familiar to Scots: macaroni. But this is macaroni with a twist – linguistic macaroni, or “macaronic language” as Wikipedia has it.

The seemingly seismic nature of the recent Scottish elections, in which the SNP achieved what was supposed to be impossible for any one party – an overall parliamentary majority –  has been remarked upon in countless fora and media. But I’m particularly impressed by this commentary from an old Facebook friend, Ryno Morrison, who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

Dàn an Taghaidh 2011

by Ryno Morrison on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 at 22:56

Diardaoin , gu tràth sa mhadainn, I started thinking of my votes
Gu dearbh cha robh e furasta, so I started taking notes
Bha paipear bhòtaidh lilac ann, with prospective MSP’s
Is iad seo a bhios dh’ ur riochdachadh, in your con-stituency

Bha fear le dath na piodse, your region’s list of choice
Gu roinneil ‘s ann bhios seachdnar ann, to give you all a voice
Agus an uairsin pàipear eile, with Yes or No for the AV
Loma làn de roghainnean, for your choices one, two, three.

Ailig beag na Nàiseantaich, is really keen to be
A Chiad Mhinisteir a rithist, he’s got more to do says he
Lion e an t’àit le poilis, he stopped charging for our pills
‘S bidh na h-oileanaich cho beartach, they won’t have any bills

Annabal nan Tòraidhean, she is sensible and prim
Ged is caol tha teans’ a Phartaidh aic, of being ever voted in
Cha bhi h-uile rud an asgaidh, we’ll need to pay our way
Tha seo reusanta is fìrinneach and brave for her to say

Tha Tavish air shàrachadh, with the marriage of ConDems
‘S tric e ‘g innse nach do chòrd e ris, the pact of us and them
Ma gheibh e steach don Riaghaltas, public spending he will trim
Cha bhi drochaid an Dùn Èideann and the trams will get the bin

Nise, Iain Grey na Labaraich, a timid man is he
An uair chaidh fear a’ bhruidhinn ris, to a pie-shop he did flee
Ma gheibh e steach don Riaghaltas, he’ll put Scotland back to on top
Bi taighean don an òigridh ann and Big Bonuses will stop

Ach tha Alba nis air bhòtadh – the peoples’ choice is SNP
Tha mhor-chuid aig na Nàiseantaich, to govern as they please
Bi Fil-ò-ro anns na h-Eileanan, the Western Isles will be all go
Le Bursday Pàrtaidh Alist’r Allan, ‘s e a nis am BIG Four-Ò

It’s great to see the macaronic tradition, which, as Wikipedia informs us, has a long lineage stretching back to Roman times, if not beyond, is still alive and kicking in the twenty-first century. ‘S math a rinn thu, Ryno! Often looked down on, particularly by those with a standardisation agenda, for me it has a true demotic, irreverent spirit, echoing in verse the natural humour and vigour evidenced in the everyday code-switching and/or mixing behaviour of fluent bilinguals like Norman Maclean. Vulgar indeed in a very Latin sense, and none the worse for that!

(PS. Why stop with bilingualism, by the way? If that was a macaronic poem, then is this a macaronic video? Never mind the quality – feel the width!)

Tormod is Amitabh

In case of confusion I should stress that my title here is in Gaelic, not English – “Norman and Amitabh”. I seek to link these two Living Legends, not fuse them into a single identity. The parallels are interesting. Although in numerical terms Gaelic and Hindi fall off opposite ends of the speaker population scale, each of these men, whatever the ups and downs in his life, may be considered a unique iconic figure in his own linguistic and cultural environment.

People take different views of the project to make Hindi the de facto as well as de jure “official language of India”, an act of linguistic self-assertiveness that followed Independence, but surely few would contest the major role Hindi cinema has played in spreading mass exposure to Hindi speech throughout the country and beyond. And there’s still no bigger Bollywood name than Amitabh Bachchan, or should I say अमिताभ बच्चन.

Gaelic can now also claim some quasi-constitutional status and protection in Scotland. How that affects its longterm future remains to be seen. But to the extent that cultural “product” (television, stand-up comedy, traditional music, contemporary literature) has any role in revitalising the language, then the multi-talented Norman Maclean (Tormod MacGill-Eain) can look back on a lifetime of creativity, and surely reflect that he’s put in as good a shift as any.

Heroes of post-imperial language struggles, then? Well indeed, maybe so, particularly if you like a lot of eggs in your polemical pudding. But let’s not simply construe this as a battle to repel English language hegemony. In a war over your preferred monolingualism there can only be one winner, whereas these guys are multicompetent, both artistically and linguistically.

To the point then. Followers of the Island Voices project may already be aware of this piece recorded last year – Norman speaking to Archie Mackay about his arrival back in Uist, after a low point in his life.

The transcript with translation is available via this link. I labelled it a “Gaelic interview”, but perhaps I might have called it bilingual, given the amount of English in there too.

Now take a look at this “Hindi interview” lifted from zoomdekho’s YouTube channel – Amitabh talking to Karan Johar about his recovery from severe injury after a filming accident.

An edited transcript with translation is available via this link, concentrating on the exchanges between the two principals. Once again the base language of the interview is peppered throughout with English language words, phrases, and complete sentences.

What’s my point? Well, both these figures have put in a lifetime’s work as highly prominent real world exponents of their respective mother tongues. To take a disparaging view of their very natural code-switching in conversation with other bilinguals is actually to miss out on the expanded creative and communicative options that bilingualism has brought them. Too often this kind of language mixing is negatively described as some kind of grammar-free shapeless mishmash, whereas a bit of careful analysis shows that it is indeed rule-governed and capable of enhanced creative effect and power. What Hindi does with English verbs is a model of simple, elegant productivity. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon. François Grosjean gives plenty more examples in his Psychology Today blog, including literary ones.

I’m going to resist the temptation to conclude with some thumpingly worthy message on what should or shouldn’t be done for the healthy growth of language X or Y. This piece is about revelling in real life language behaviour and creativity. I’m just pleased with the language choices I’ve made in my life, and thankful to have had the opportunity to appreciate all three featured here. Nach mi bha lucky! Benbecula to Bollywood, in the company of Tormod and Amitabh. Any volunteers to do that backwards – उल्टा दौड़के?

Mar as motha a dh’atharraicheas e?

Recent rummaging through old files on old discs as part of a domestic computer upgrade turned up an interesting find. I presented this paper 19 years ago at the first Fasgnag conference at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig – long before Àrainn Chaluim Chille, before even the extension to Àrainn Ostaig. What a lot of changes there have been in the Gaelic development world in the intervening period – and I’m not just referring to new buildings in the Isle of Skye.

If I remember correctly the paper was well received on the day, with a number of participants remarking on how the mutual confidence issues between interlocutors that I was raising in relation to adult learners were mirrored among young adults raised in Gaelic-speaking families in the Western Isles. Two decades on, is the question of how to establish a minimum shared “comfort level” for Gaelic speaking just as salient, if not more so, irrespective of how you started learning it, or at what age?

Plus ça change? Well, maybe. You certainly don’t have to look hard for reasons to be pessimistic. But you could say the case for Gaelic has always been counter-intuitive at a surface “transactional” level of analysis. Dig a bit deeper, though, and more interesting questions emerge. How to welcome and embrace bilingualism, with both arms? How to assert and celebrate the importance of speech in ordinary daily language behaviour, and so place writing skills in their proper context? These are positive questions, with general as well as specific Gaelic application. And finding answers may require yet more counter-intuitive thinking. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the remaining Gaelic-speaking communities outside academia, such as they are, would be a good place to start looking. After all, they are the closest we’ve got in Scotland to an everyday working model.

Doubling up on Shak and Sax: Musical Bilingualism?

Learning languages is not a zero sum game. The notion that there’s only so much space in your brain to accommodate your linguistic competence and/or diversity, and that therefore, for example, you’re doing your kids a favour if you abandon your own home language in favour of whatever standard is used in their school, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, a good exposure to two or more different linguistic codes may well stand to boost your capacity in both of them. Dick Johnstone reported finding higher order English skills in children attending Gaelic medium education.

So what about music? Is there, by analogy, a chance or indeed likelihood that playing more than one instrument, say, will you make a better musician? Broadly speaking, I can see sense in that, but I wouldn’t want to push it very far without caveats. My keyboard skills are pretty rudimentary, but it’s probably true that my harmonic awareness, such as it is, which I’ve developed in part through playing around on the keyboard, has contributed in some degree to any melodic innovation I might try on the flute. If I know the chords that are coming I’ve got a better idea of where I can go with a tune.

But if you pick that apart a bit all I’m actually saying there is that harmonic awareness enhances melodic invention. The fact that I happen to play mostly chords on the piano and tunes on the flute is coincidental.

So what about two melodic instruments, say flute and saxophone? We’re in murkier water here. There’s plenty of debate (examples here) on the web about the merits or otherwise of doubling up on flutes and reeds. A lot of professionals do it, but the debate is almost always framed in terms of damage limitation rather than mutual enhancement. The consensus seems to be that, yes, it’s possible to be a very good player of both instruments, provided you put in countless hours of practice so that your lip muscles in particular can easily adjust to the very different requirements of either instrument. And the nagging doubt remains that if you chose to focus on just one of the two and put in the same hours you could be better still on that one instrument.

So, if you’re looking at this question from the perspective of musical technique, I think it’s difficult to argue very strongly for the bilingualism analogy. However, to the extent that different musical instruments are associated with, and adapted to “encode”, different musical traditions, there may well be grounds for arguing that learning two instruments, and therefore two different traditions, stands to enhance overall musical competence/capacity/creativity.

A couple of examples to finish, offered with some trepidation. They’re both from Bi Beò tracks. On Dannsa a’ Phortain I play alto saxophone, and on Hougharry Reel my own haund-knitted “Gaelic shakuhachi”.

Dannsa a’ Phortain:

Hougharry Reel:

In my case, doubling up on the two is clearly no guarantee of superior technique on either… But on the other hand experimentation with both Western and other traditions has been, for me at least, a refreshing musical experience, and offered the opportunity to create something new and different. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I finally found a place for it in a Gaelic band?

Gaelic-English Simultaneous Interpreting: a one-off insight

I was at the Cothrom AGM last week, and found myself in the “Interpreter’s booth” at the back of the boardroom whispering English into a microphone for the benefit of those in attendance who had no Gaelic. There were a few folk around the room equipped with discreet headsets they’d picked up as they came in the door.

Anyway, I survived – and a couple of folk were kind enough to say that I made some kind of sense of it – but it’s not something I’ll be volunteering to do again in a hurry. There was some fairly routine, if unscripted, procedural stuff – agreeing minutes etc. But the main challenge lay in two speeches – one quite brief, the other less so. Mercifully, both speakers gave me copies of what they were going to say before they started – otherwise I definitely would have drowned.

In the event, neither speaker stuck strictly to their scripts, so for me it wasn’t “simply” a question of reading/interpreting from the page in front of me. One speaker had supplied me with their Gaelic text, while the other had gone a stage further and already translated their speech into English. Perhaps counter-intuitively I found the latter more difficult – even though it was the shorter speech. The fact that neither speaker stuck exactly to their script meant that I had to keep an ear open for what they were saying while I was whispering away into the mike. I found it easier to locate where the speaker was on the page in front of me when the written text was the original Gaelic, rather than the translated English. I guess that’s because I had an extra processing stage to go through with the latter – “re-translating” back into Gaelic to match text with what the speaker was saying at the time. Complicated stuff. And I was definitely ready for the refreshments when it was all over.

Anyway, after the event – duh – I did some googling on simultaneous interpreting and simultaneous translating. I found this link offered interesting insights, including concise tips for speakers as well as interpreters from folk who do this for a living. Not that I’m planning on making more direct use of them any time soon. Once was interesting, but quite enough. Definitely a job for professionals whenever possible.

But hats off to Cothrom for running their meeting in Gaelic. Now that the technology is more readily available it’s good to hear the language re-entering the public domain in community meetings like this.

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