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!
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!
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…)
“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… 🙂 .
I had some fun on Facebook last week, posting a link to a Google Translate page – not because I was at all interested in the machine translation, but because with some languages, including both English and Hindi, an additional “Text To Speech” (TTS) facility is thrown in. It’s this synthesized speech function I was wanting to highlight. I’m not sure all my friends got that point, so I’m posting again, but this time with a bit more explanation and a screenshot thrown in. (This is where WordPress wins over Facebook hands down!)
So here goes. If you’re interested in Gaelic “TTS” follow this link to get my own “off the shelf” take on it. Never mind the proffered translation on the right hand side of the page. That’s irrelevant to my purpose. Just click on the “Listen” speaker icon (circled in red in the picture above) in the left hand box containing the “Hindi” script.
Some of my Gaelic-speaking friends were quite taken with the result, whereas I can be sure none of my Hindi-speaking friends would have made head or tail of it – unless they could also understand Gaelic…
Ho hum, if only our Gaelic-speaking forefathers had chosen to write in Devanagari instead of the Roman alphabet, how much further forward might we now be!? Actually, you can do the same sort of trick with “English” TTS. Follow this link – which, if nothing else (if you can bear to listen), demonstrates the phonetic distance that your “average” English English speaker has to travel in order to get anywhere close to the Gaelic sound system…
A bit of fun, as I said. But I’m tempted to extract a linguistic moral, nonetheless. Language and writing are not one and the same thing. Speech can be effectively represented on the page or screen in many different ways. When we privilege one system over another, perhaps in a search for standardisation or normalisation, we may be prone to accord an exaggerated importance to orthographic orthodoxy, at the cost of undervaluing oral ability. Yet speech comes to us first. It is the real deal, writing a mere representation.
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:
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:
A piece from the day job blog, highlighting a new Ipadio channel from a younger communtiy member who values his traditional inheritance…
Tha CD a’ dol leis an leabhar aig a sheanair, “Thugam agus Bhuam”, air a bheil Lachlann Phàdruig (athair Phàdruig òig) a’ gabhail feadhainn dhe na h-òrain aig athair fhèin agus e a’ còmhradh le Gordon Wells. Tha Pàdruig òg air an cur air-loidhne a-nis, gus an tèid aig luchd-ionnsachaidh is eile air an cluinntinn gu furasta. ‘S e goireas ùr cuideachail a tha seo. Agus ma tha sibh airson na faclan fhaicinn cuideachd chan fheum sibh ach an leabhar fhaighinn… Nach math a rinn e!