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Languages and Learning

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!

21st Century Brits: Young, Black – and Gifted?

“Cyber Nat!” “Brit Nat!” “Scot Nat!” “North Brit!”

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?

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?

Ich bin ein Uibhisteach

I wouldn’t normally feature the same video simultaneously both here and on the Island Voices site. But I confess to a special weakness for this one – certainly not for its technical merits, shot on an ageing hand-held mini-DV camera with a grumbling motor – but I love the content. So many smiling faces, and of all ages! The Uist community at its very best that night. What a delight to see familiar faces in less familiar surroundings, and all contributing of their own talents to give everyone a good time. And what a privilege to be able to record it.

Animals last month, and now children – learning English, singing Gaelic, teaching Russian, oh, and also speaking Polish…. Inspirational stuff, but everyone was a star, including the incoming music students gelling with local youth (and the not quite so youthful…) to provide the perfect soundtrack for a great community event. A real sense of vindication for the work “ris a’ bhruthaich” back in the early years of FE/HE development here in Uist.

Is there a better place to be on a midsummer’s night than Uibhist fhèin?

Mi piace questo binario!

“I like this platform!” I learnt my first Italian sentence from Catherine, when she told me the story of her linguistic adventures on a trip to Italy before we’d met, let alone married. Imbued with beginner’s zeal she was determined to use what skill she had acquired in the language at every opportunity, including with unsuspecting strangers encountered in a railway station – any railway station… Funnily enough, family history does not record how the conversation developed after this powerful opening gambit. This film is dedicated to her inspirational enthusiasm.

Mi piace questo binario! from Gordon Wells on Vimeo.

A collaborative effort by participants in the recent POOLS-CX video workshop for language teachers, held in Pistoia, Italy. We aimed to teach each other something of our own languages, while learning how to make videos at the same time. Would anyone care to count the number of languages used – and identify them all? And can you identify the locations – other than Pistoia itself?

Once again we are indebted to the Italian Dub Community for the Creative Commons licensed music. It gives a necessarily patchwork film some kind of narrative unity and direction!

The Anglovision Song Contest and La Diversité

So, the annual camp-fest is over. The Grumpy Old Man retired to his favourite darkened room for most of it but emerged in time for the voting. Actually, I do – just – remember a time when I enjoyed it in a “serious” way, back when Abba were a novelty for not singing in their own language… Apparently “about 99%” of last night’s entries were in English. Ok, maybe some slight exaggeration there, but the trend seems inexorable.

Regular trips around Western Europe in recent years have left me underwhelmed by the seeming ubiquity of Anglo-American pop music, but a trip to Cyprus last year lifted my spirits. I don’t think I heard one English song on bus or car radio all the time I was there. So, as the votes began to pile up for Azerbaijan last night I won’t say the night was filled with Eastern promise, but, having not yet heard the song, I did allow myself some optimism that the winner was going to offer something a little bit different. Oh oh!

My own vote? Well, I didn’t hear the songs, so can only comment on the voting presentation. Fantastic! Marvellous!! Stupendous night!!! What a great show!!!! Shall I go on? Well, only to say top marks to the forlorn Frenchman who manfully delivered the tally of his country’s votes – entirely in the language of that country. Amazing!!! C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre…

But here’s the rub. The anglophone craze actually does the UK no “favours” at all. The Blue effort was evidently indistinguishable in the monocultural monotone. So what’s the solution for those who would seek a return to the glory days of Sandie Shaw or (Sir) Cliff Richard? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’ve got plenty other languages here. How about making 2012 the year when the UK shows some linguistic and cultural invention and enters a song in a language other than English? What is there to lose?

Someone should be getting on the phone to Julie Fowlis now.

European Award for Languages: a perspective on “community languages”

So, the news is out, and now the Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean prize has finally been collected – hebridean-language-project-awarded-european-accolade. The occasion was formal without being grandiose, and a useful opportunity to meet other people doing interesting things in the language teaching field. The speeches were generally kept brief – which didn’t necessarily exclude the chance to make some challenging points. Lots of people are exercised by the shrinking take-up of languages in UK schools.

Heartening for me was the high profile given to various Community Language initiatives – with prizes also going to a primary Tamil project, and a teacher training course taking in Arabic, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Urdu. Those of us living in an Anglophone world may consider ourselves lucky to have instant access to a language with the all-pervasive and international reach of English, but there’s a less welcome flipside to that coin. For starters, in a world in which everyone speaks English where’s the advantage in speaking ONLY English? Yet “English only” is probably what most “native” English speakers speak. I’m afraid the Anglophone world generally has a pretty monolingual notion of what language competence entails. It’s when you engage with the other language communities in the UK – for example Gaelic or Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi in my own experience – that you begin to appreciate the wider communicative horizons that bilingualism naturally offers.

Integral to bilingual competence is the exercise of extended choice. Every bilingual has a choice of linguistic codes on which to draw, and code-switching and code-mixing  are perfectly natural and productive responses to that choice. That there are pockets of working bilingualism still existing in the wider monolingual Anglophone environment means that there are alternative and liberating models of language competence close at hand. To the extent that wider society is open-minded enough to acknowledge, accept, and learn from this happy situation then there remain grounds for hope that native English language skills can become a springboard to an extended language competence, rather than a recipe for complacency and a needlessly restricted communicative range. “Aye, dream on”, some might say. It’s certainly a big ask and I wouldn’t want to underestimate the scale of the task, but recognising through awards like this the potential contribution that community languages have to make is probably a useful first step.

Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean: background thinking

The “Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean” project was conceived as an exercise in teaching materials development. Its primary purpose is to help people learn languages. It has also been an immensely enjoyable piece of work to produce – trying to capture the “day to day creativity” of a bilingual community.

It has certainly sparked interest beyond a narrowly educational one. Over the summer of 2007 it formed a part of the annual “Art on the Map” trail, with the videos being played on a loop at Nunton Steadings in Benbecula. Pasted below are the introductory comments that I wrote for any interested viewers. I’d like to take the project further. Any comments or suggestions welcome.

“Art on the Map”

We rely on our power to think in order to make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live. Our thoughts take shape in words. Language is fundamental to the way we find or create meaning in our lives.

Yet we are not born with it. Every one of us goes through a creative process by which we learn to recognise and produce particular sounds, and organise them into patterns which have a shared significance for ourselves and those around us. And the patterns allow an infinite variety of shifting combinations, freeing us all to constantly mean something new and different every time we open our mouths to speak.

Generally we take this highly intricate complexity for granted, so naturally engrained is it in our everyday lives. We rarely acknowledge it, let alone celebrate it. Sometimes, however, the existence side by side of two distinct linguistic systems, for example English and Gaelic, presents a choice and may make us stop and think a bit about “everyday language”, and perhaps appreciate it more. The Uist communities of the early twenty-first century, through their day-to-day sharing of two highly differentiated yet equally valid “methods of delivering meaning”, offer the opportunity for reflection on a remarkable human characteristic.

In this series of short films the documentaries offer “slices of life and work” in the Uists. While they were undeniably fun to make, their function is really to establish a context. They are therefore, in an important sense, subordinate to the interviews with real people talking naturally about their life or work. Most of the interviewees are bilingual, and offer “two takes” on their world. The monolingual viewer, confronted with an opaque wall of sound in an unknown language, may be alerted to an alternative and intricate way of making meaning. The bilingual viewer may reflect on the richness of choice available to them with their varied linguistic repertoire, and consider the value of maintaining it. The language learner can look forward to making the once opaque seem quite transparent.

The project is created, at heart, for learners – those who see inherent value in continuing to extend their expressive range. Yet some broader benefit may also be seen if we are all reminded of the unique creative capacity that we share – the natural art that is natural language. What people say about their daily lives may sometimes seem quite unremarkable. How they say it, when you do stop to think about it, is actually beyond words.

Gordon Wells, Benbecula, 14/07/07,

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