Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Seòltachd | The Method

As much as it annoys me, I'm going to have to write the majority of this blog in Beurla. It takes me far to long and requires a lot of Gaelic phrases that I haven't learned yet in order to talk about all the things we'd like to with this blog. Bidh mi a' sgriobhadh ann Gàidhlig Bhriste ma tha mi tairgse. I will write in broken Gaelic if I'm able. But to get my point across it seems I'l still be stuck in English for a while. That's one of the challenges we all face when learning Gaelic at a later age, or any language for that matter. None of us are used to having the conversational abilities of a five year old. Many of us aren't used to speaking in our new language at all. That is where I was before we started this trip, and that is what I want to talk about today. The learners roadblocks to conversation and the method we used to get beyond that.

That last paragraph took me about a minute to write. Of that, the single gaelic sentence was about half the time, mainly because I had to go look up a phrase I'm not used to using. It makes sense when you think about it, the biggest challenge facing us learners is practice, using the language as we get it, and gaining more of it that way.

I consider myself a fairly accomplished English user and I love to talk and write. It's a comfort level that has taken approximately 166,000 hours of full immersion in the language including classroom studies, grammar, writing, and every other study I've ever had. It's little surprise then that I'm comfortable in the language. All of the idoms and phrases I need are there ready to access. In comparison I've been learning Gaelic for all of three years and of that time I've only been immersed in it for about 150 hours; nearly half of that happened during our week in Cape Breton.

The success of our immersion week wasn't just in the class but also in how we decided to handle our learning while we were there. We decided, on our drive up, that from the time we reached the Canadian border we were going to use nothing but Gaelic whether we were in the classroom or not. For the most part we were able to stick to that plan. What it meant was we had 8 hours a day for five days of guided immersion from our instructor, Angus, and that we also force ourselves into using gaelic in unfamiliar situations. We had to learn to discuss cooking, our day plan, grocery shopping, small talk, everything had to be in Gaelic, and we didn't always have it. It could definitely be frustrating, especially for someone as gabby as me; for example, we were looking for a place to eat in St. Johns, New Brunswick. We wanted something quick like a sandwich shop because we were pressed for time. We were giving directions, guessing, and talking about our preferences in Gaelic, and we were getting lost; we couldn't find anything, except pizza (Canada, we need to talk, we think you may have a problem). Eventually as we crossed an under-construction bridge for the second time, in the wrong direction, we lost our patience; "English until we eat." It was a little bit of a defeat but we were learning as well.

Through the week as we got more comfortable, and we learned what questions to ask, Gaelic became easier. There was actually a point where I felt a little odd speaking English on the phone with my family. It was getting to be second nature, after the third day, to try and get our point across in the Gaelic we had and asking questions about the Gaelic we didn't. Everyone in our class, no matter what their level gained a lot of experience with the language. It rang through Angus' house on a daily basis even during the times we were permitted to use English. In forcing myself to try and express myself in Gaelic I learned new words and phrases from the people I spoke to. When I would get stuck on a phrase I could usually stumble through a kindergarten version of what I was trying to say. It was enough to be understood and often would lead to some new Gaelic to use.

Usage is the key to learning the language and gaining confidence. A guided immersion is a great way to do that, and the longer the better, however that option isn't always available. It is however more than possible to do your own immersion and change the way you think. Two of our classmates, Stephen and Nona, had made the decision to make Gaelic the language of their home, and just quit using English as much as they could. They now have a very good grasp of the language and are more than comfortable in conversation. I've read about others doing the same; it's an ambitious approach and will certainly yeild results. If you're not that confident, or if like me your family aren't on board with Gaelic only, you can turn any portion of your day to day life into immersion. Try only ever counting in Gaelic, pick some games you or your family like to play that can be played in Gaelic (I can teach you blackjack or go fish). Use Gaelic for specific activities, prepping meals, going for a drive, shopping, etc. You can find enough online to be able to make shopping lists, for example. Anything you can do to lodge the Gaelic in your brains will make it easier to use and will eventually flow over to other areas of your Gaelic learning.

The important takeaway is don't get discouraged and use what you have.

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