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!
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:
Agus seo pìos eile, a’ sealltainn nach eil òigridh Uibhist gun tàlant san nòs ùr…
Catrin Evans lives on Grimsay and studies at Sgoil Lìonacleit. And in her spare time she writes songs – songs which are making an impression. She’s started to be a regular performer at Taigh Chearsabhagh’s Taigh Ciùil, and she’s been away to the “Wee Studio” in Stornoway to make some recordings, thanks to family support and a Creative Scotland award for young musicians. Here, she talks to Gordon Wells about how she started writing songs, what the process is, and how the island environment inspires her. She also talks about the experience of recording in a professional studio, and how it’s boosted her confidence and desire to do more writing and performing:-
(If you’re an iPad or iPhone user you may need to follow this link: http://ipad.io/f0rp)
Here’s the Wee Studio recording of one of her songs – “Battleship”. (And you can follow the words if you…
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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!
Bòrd na Gàidhlig does well to title its new draft language plan “Fàs is Feabhas” (“Growth and Quality”), and the Chief Executive took pains to stress the emphasis on quality alongside quantity in a recent public consultation meeting in Liniclate.
I think I understand why people feel they need to play it when talking about Gaelic, but those of us who wish the language well need to be wary of thinking the numbers game is the only one in town. An unremitting and institutionalised focus on “growing the volume” of the Gaelic speaking and/or learning “mass” may have unwanted side effects. I don’t think I need to spell out the dangers inherent in a target-driven, “never mind the quality, feel the width” tick-box culture.
Fòram na Gàidhlig is probably as good a place as any, and maybe better than most, to keep abreast with surveys and research reports, opinion polls etc on Gaelic, and how they can be treated in the media and received and interpreted in the wider Gaelic-supporting community. Here’s an interesting string – some initial if muted enthusiasm in response to fairly arcane mathematical modelling, questioned (and not just by me) on closer inspection. And “surveys of opinion” are always good for some debate.
The danger with quantitative measures is if they reinforce the presumption that “bigger is better”. Well, it ain’t necessarily so. This piece of research, by contrast, is unashamedly qualitative rather than quantitative in focus. Indeed, a sample size of 14 might sound rather puny to some, especially when placed next to the nationwide 1,000-odd surveyed here for the Scottish Government. But, sure, we can “play games” with this one too. Given a Uist population of roughly 5,000, the population of Glasgow must be at least 100 times that, and Scotland’s would be 1,000 times the size. So, if we were to scale it up, that might imply a similar survey in, say, Glasgow would find over 1,400 Gaelic “activists/supporters” there ready and willing to participate, and a national one would uncover 14,000 spread across the country. Hmmm. That would be something…
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 “national 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?
Click on the image for a close-up of the article.
English summary: Video and audio production for language learning need not be prohibitively expensive. The Island Voices project, capturing natural language from outside the classroom, covers many different topics and situations, with video material available on YouTube for ease of access. And now the blog also includes audio material captured by phone. This facilitates participation by fluent speakers who may have little interest in literacy per se.
Comments welcome – in English or Gaelic!
The islands were evacuated last century. Lucky me to get there last week!
The whole of the first series of Guthan nan Eilean / Island Voices has now been included in Highland Libraries’ bilingual Am Baile site: www.ambaile.org.uk. You can get to it as a video collection through English or Gaelic. Many thanks to Maggie Johnstone, the Am Baile Administrator for organising that. Setting up a fully bilingual site must be no small undertaking, and setting up a bilingual platform for a bilingual collection can only be more complicated still, especially when the two halves of the collection almost exactly mirror each other, but not quite… One or two teething problems there, but nothing drastic, and the transcripts will also be posted up in due course. The videos have been compressed quite a bit – which means loss of some visual quality – but, for quick YouTube-style access this is probably an easier platform to navigate than the original POOLS site.