Scottish Gaelic Day One: Basic training

I think the first few days of learning any language are the hardest.  The words all look so very very foreign.  Even if the language is in the same family as your native one all similarities hide when you look at a page of words in a completely unfamiliar language. It becomes a bunch of gibberish.  I have a feeling a lot of people who try to learn a language on their own give up in the first week.  And I can’t say I blame them.  Flipping through a page or two of a language book and finding you can’t make heads or tails of any of it is kinda scary.  It looks so esoteric you are just not smart enough to learn it.  I think language books should make a point not to put large blocks text in the language you’re learning anywhere on the first five pages, so as not to freak people out.  Because I’m good at languages; I pick them up pretty quick, I find the patterns on which they’re built with relative ease, and my knowledge of language families helps me find similarities between languages.  I went into this with a level head, knowing I’m perfectly capable of learning this language. I almost gave up after looking at a page of Gaelic text.

It’s the orthography of Gaelic that’s scary.  Their spelling system is almost as complicated as English’s.  Lot’s of single sounds are represented by two letters together, or could be represented in two different ways, or is represented by a letter which also represents an entirely different sound, or aren’t pronounced at all. And sometimes there are letters in a word whose primary function is to tell you how to pronounce some other letter. And there are h’s everywhere.  It looks completely impossible.

So I decided I needed a plan of attack, a way of breaking the language up into manageable chunks.  I downloaded the Colloquial Scottish Gaelic e-book and associated audio files, and I’m going to work through it carefully, repeating and rewriting all dialogues and completing all exercises, half a chapter a day.  In addition, I found a website that has lots of videos in Scottish Gaelic with good English subtitles.  I’ll watch one of those a day too, in order to get a semi-immersive aspect going.  And for later, once I have a pretty good grasp of the language, I found a bunch of Gaelic fairytales I can try translating, to improve my fluency.    And every fifth day will be review of everything I’ve learned thus.  Oh, and as a bonus I wrote down a pretty long list of useful or entertaining Gaelic phrases so I could familiarize myself with the spelling system in a less overwhelming way, one sentence at a time.  I may also post video or audio files of me reading the dialogues and stuff so that, on the off chance this gets any actual followers and one or more happen to speak Gaelic, I can get some feedback on pronunciation

I think it’s a pretty good plan, actually. I have no idea how long it’ll take to get to a reasonable level of ability (enough to be able to carry on short conversations an read with average skill) but I hope to be ready to pick a new language in no more than six months.  Then I’ll continue to improve my Gaelic with reading and videos while I start learning the basics of something else.


Tripping Over Language: A Brief Explanation

Ok, so, I really don’t have any idea what the proper way to introduce a blog is.  I’m pretty new to this whole blogging thing. I tend to get in on trends kinda late in the game.  So, I figure we’ll just jump in feet first.  I’m Amanda.  I’m a 27 year old college student extraordinaire majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Linguistics.  What I do, essentially, is study language.  How they’re made, how they work, and how they’re used.  Not just one language, but all of them.  It’s a little meta, using language to determine what it takes to be a language and how our language effects the way we think.  I subscribe to the belief that all the world’s languages are related, and that somewhere under all the cases and tenses there is a pattern, a basic shared structure.  That’s what linguists do (well, one of the things), compare languages looking for these patterns and identifying the rules that all languages follow.  It’s called typology.  Only problem is, to find a universal language rule, you have to look at all the languages, and so very many of the world’s languages are dying.  There are hundreds of languages on which we simply don’t have enough information to really understand their structure. It’s a sad thing, really.  Languages are beautiful, fascinating, a reflection of the culture of their speakers.  When a language dies, I feel like I’ve lost a potential friend.

And so I have taken on a project.  I intend to learn as many of the world’s endangered languages as I can, become one more speaker standing in the way of a languages extinction.  I will start with ones that still have enough speakers and enough information about them that I can find resources online (because I’m poor and can’t afford classes or travel right now), and I will study major languages that are related to help develop my grasp of the structures.  And I hope to someday get grants to travel to remote Amazonian villages and Australian outbacks, and study the languages of tribal peoples before they fade away. 

This blog will hopeful record the whole darn thing, allow me to reflect on not just the current language I’m studying, but the more meta realizations about language learning in general.  Because I don’t agree with Chomsky that language is innate, and I don’t think we acquire it.  We learn it,  and we can learn another at any age. And the more languages we speak, the easier it becomes to learn new ones. Our brains begin to recognize patterns even though we often can’t express what the rules are.  Maybe this project will help me or some future linguist verbally express those patterns.

Deciding where to start was tricky.  There are some really fascinating languages that could very well be extinct in ten years.  How to pick just one?  I decided it was best to pick an Indo-European language, since English is my native language and I speak a fair bit of German.  And since I’m of Scotch-Irish descent and very much look it, I settled on Scottish Gaelic.  And now, after scouring the interwebs for textbooks and video files and poetry with translations and movies without subtitles, I’m ready to start saving the world one language at a time.  Tomorrow we begin with Lesson One: Greeting people.