Addressing that Atrocious Accent


I’ve been thinking about the troubles I’ve been having with pronunciation, and I think I’ve managed to identify my two main problems. First, my ‘ch’ sound, that fricative sound down in the back of your throat, sounds far too much like the German version. In German the ‘ch’ in, for instance, ich, is a low drawn out sound. Sort of like a cat hissing. The Scottish ‘ch’ is, on the other hand, a harder, stronger, higher sound. It’s like a k with a bad throat cold. Loch sounds like lock for a reason. Ich is closer to ish.

And then there’s the rhythm of my sentences. Gaelic has a kind of sing-song, melodic flow to it which comes from the stress pattern of words. The accent is always on the first syllable. English, however, uses stress to mark case or importance, since we don’t have endings to do that for us. So our stress patterns are variable. When I read Gaelic sentences, I have a tendency to place the stresses where they would be in English, which makes me sound wrong. Especially because I’m also infecting improperly. Tonal inflection in many sentences is a reflection of the semantics. We change the pitch of our voices to indicate what type of statement we’re making, and we adjust our pitch at various points in the statement to identify important information. So, in a language with a subject-verb-object structure, pitch often starts high and lowers throughout the sentence, jumping up again at the end if it’s a question. This is because we’re marking the subject, the important thing. However, Gaelic doesn’t use that structure. So when my vocal intonation reflects that structure, the tones don’t match up with the proper words. I sound like a bad actor who doesn’t know what they’re supposed to be feeling. I have to start thinking in a verb-subject-object format. And the same order discrepancy has me putting pauses in the wrong places. You pause between constituent parts of a sentence to mark the words as part of a group. I keep pausing after nouns (because English puts nouns at the end of noun phrases), which makes the adjectives sound like they aren’t modifying anything. It sounds odd.

But now that I recognize where I’m going wrong, I can be more aware of my vocal patterns. And thanks to Simon over at Omniglot, who sent me a bunch of really helpful resources, I have some pronunciation guides and audio files to listen to. I should be sounding more Scottish in no time!

I think language teachers should pay more attention to this kind of thing. If my Japanese teacher had explained to me that I was inflecting improperly because I was using the rhythm of a language with a different structure, I might have stopped sounding like I was practicing my racist generic Asian accent. It also helps the structure of the language become more natural to you when your vocal patterns reflect it. It gets easier and faster to translate things when you say them with the right pattern. A little linguistic knowledge of the language you’re learning can really help sometimes.

Later on today I’ll put up the videos for Lesson 2 from TYG and we’ll see if my speaking has improved. Fingers crossed.

The Adjectival Inflection Question


There is a strange inflectional morphology in Scottish Gaelic called lenition, where word initial consonants are made weaker through the addition of h just behind them when in certain environments. Teach Yourself Gaelic introduces this initially in lesson 1A, and expands on it later. All it has to say in 1A, which is mostly about adjectives, is that adjectives modifying feminine nouns are lenited. So, for instance, take the word beag [BAY uck]. When used with a masculine noun, it appears in its standard form (eg. ‘an cat beag’ or ‘the small cat’) But when used with a feminine noun, the initial sound changes (eg. ‘an iolair bheag’ [VAY uck]). The stop becomes a fricative. Since not all sounds are capable of lenition (vowels aren’t, and in some cases S’s aren’t) there are instances where the sound change doesn’t occur in this environment, but for the most part it’s there. And feminine noun phrases aren’t the only environments that cause it. Direct address of a person leads to lenition, but only if it’s a woman, and the adjective gle [glay] (which means very) causes lenition when it modifies another adjective. Words can be lenited when they are in specific cases or when proceeded by by possessive determiners in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd masculine persons. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern by which I can determine what causes the sound change though. It’s grammatical, not phonological, but the instances don’t seem to have anything in common. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, kind of randomly. Why should masculine nouns lenite in genitive and feminine in nominative? Why not the other way around? I’m really curious as to why the change happens.

You’ll also note that in Scottish Gaelic the adjective follows the noun it’s modifying. I was surprised to learn that that is actually the case in most languages. Twice as many languages use a noun-adjective formation than use the adjective-noun structure found in English. I guess we just like being the underdogs.

That’s really all the linguistically interesting stuff you can pull out of Lesson 1A, which I really think could easily have just been included in Lesson 1, rather than given it’s own super-special section. It was only two pages. But, despite my complaints about formatting and lack of creativity in the text, I’m really glad I switched to this book. While it would be nice to have audio to improve my speaking, I find my ability to read Gaelic has dramatically improved in the past couple of days. I’m retaining the information well and I’m picking it up fast. CSG had you memorize phrases and then told you what they meant, but you still didn’t know what you were saying. The individual words were just as foreign as before you started. By explaining how to formulate any and all sentences, TYG allows me to expand beyond just recitation. I can figure out new words in context and use old words in new places. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I really think that’s a better system.

You can see for yourself the considerable improvement in translation as I stumble through this sections exercises.

I’m Back Part 2: Electric Boogaloo


I can’t bring myself to leave a lesson only half finished when I’ve been so lax lately already, so here’s part two of Teach Yourself Gaelic Lesson 1, in which I tackle exercise two, which is pretty much the same thing as exercise one, except in reverse. Which I’m afraid doesn’t make it terribly interesting as far as linguistic analysis is concerned. N o new information. I did however have a lot of snarky things to say about the semantic choices made by the textbook’s authors, so that’s fun. The people who write these things really do come up with the strangest sentences to have you translate. If I ever write a language textbook, I cross my heart anything I ask the students to translate will be stolen directly from Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes or something. Quirky stuff, so once they figure out what it means you’ll get a room full of startled laughter. Anyways, enough of my rambling. Just see it for yourself.

The Prodigal Linguist Returns


Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s kinda been a bit. I promise I haven’t forgotten about this blog or given up on learning Scottish Gaelic. i just got super busy there for a minute. I work in a restaurant, and my employer took a good 70% of the crew off to Vegas on vacation. I was not part of that 70%. Instead, I stayed behind and covered everyone else. So yeah, busy busy busy.

It doesn’t help that I got really frustrated with CSG. I was putting a ton of work in, but I didn’t feel like I was learning the language at all. I could sputter off some basic phrases when prompted, sure, but I barely knew what I was saying. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

So I’ve switched to Teach Yourself Gaelic. It doesn’t have an audio file with it, which makes me sad, but the written pronunciations are included with each word, and I can supplement it with the thousand audio files and flashcard programs I have. And I like the format sooooo much better. By the end of the first lesson I’m already translating some pretty complicated sentences, and I really feel like I understand how they’re formulated. I know what I’m saying, and I’ve already memorized the vocabulary list for this section. I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

I think that is hugely important in second language learning, that sense of accomplishment as you begin to grasp the words or sounds or grammars you’re trying to learn. I know a lot of people are down on the old-fashioned style of teaching language, where you memorized lists of words and then had someone teach you grammar. Contemporary teachers are adopting more conversational models. But I find that there’s a sense of comprehension the old system has that I miss in the new one, a feeling similar to that of putting puzzle pieces together and beginning to see the underlying picture. While the conversational method might, in the long run, increase fluency and shorten learning time, it can only do that if people stick with it. And the lack of immediate and obvious improvement can be really frustrating.

I think maybe we would be better combining the two, so that students can feel like they’re getting somewhere and learning something while still being taught to converse and think in the right way.

Anyway- here’s the video of the first half of Teach Yourself Gaelic Lesson 1.

This lesson focuses mainly on grammar and introducing some vocabulary, and there are some really interesting things about the Scottish language to learn here. For one thing, most of the world’s languages use a word order that is subject-initial, but SG is one of only 120 languages using a verb-initial structure. (You can look at the charts of which languages use which orders over here. Additionally, SG is one of only 98 languages to have a definite article but no indefinite (thanks to WALS again, you can see the list here). I’m really curious if there’s any sort of connection between those features. I didn’t see anything that stood out immediately, but a closer look might show some correlation. There’s a few other things I noticed just about the structure of the language and possible patterns, but I’ll save those for Lesson 1 Pt 2, which I plan on having up by the end of the day.

A brief review of Byki


So, while I do enjoy my Colloquial Scottish Gaelic textbook, the audio files are (as previously mentioned) not entirely helpful. And it’s difficult to really study the materials without assignments and someone to grade you. So I decided I needed some supplementary materials if I was going to actually retain anything. Thus, I have downloaded BYKI and all the Scottish lists they have to offer.

I’m shocked to announce, I actually find them really useful. The flashcard style and very clear audio are perfect for figuring out pronunciation. I can practice words I’ve heard in context from the textbook without getting jumbled up in surrounding phonemes, so when I find it in a different context later I won’t be confused that it added or took away a sound. And the hold up a card and I’ll tell you what it means method is good for getting it to stick. I certainly don’t think it’ll teach you a language on it’s own, but as a supplement it’s really nice. If you’re interested, check it out here. They have a bunch of other languages available too.

ETA- Another great supplement, which will also help you recognize new words in context without translation, can be found here at the Am Bhaile website. This particular collection is a group of popular nursery rhymes and songs sung in Scottish. There are tons of other videos and mp3s over there though.

Colloquial Scottish Gaelic Chapter 1 Part 1


I learned some very interesting things today. unfortunately, only one of them was about the Gaelic language. The others are about how not to make audio software for a language textbook. The audio files that came with the book can be really useful, they’re really helping with the whole pronunciation thing. But only because I’m unbelievably persistent. The narrator is exhausting. He sounds bored. Like, really really bored. Not a great way to keep a student’s attention. But he’s not the worst part. The worst part is Dialogue Two, in which a woman tries to buy a bus ticket from a bus driver I suspect may be an avox who immigrated from Panem. Seriously, who picks an actor with no observable skills in projection or annunciation to teach people foreign languages? Not the brightest plan.

There’s also the small matter of whoever gets paid for writing these dialogues. I’ve always had difficulty with the little conversations printed in language texts. I’m pretty good at languages, I tend to pick up the rules quick-like. But those silly dialogues confound me. And I think I finally realize why. It’s the conversation itself. No one talks like that. I don’t care what language you’re speaking, you address someone in the same style and tone that they address you. If a stranger greets you formally, you don’t get all pal-sy with them. It’s simply not done. Unless you’re the girl in CSG dialogue one, I guess. Now, I know why they’re doing it, they want to teach you about the politeness distinction, introduce the pattern, let you hear the difference. But it makes the conversation so stilted. It just doesn’t flow right. I really think these dialogues should be written the way actual people would talk in an actual conversation.

But enough ranting, random trivia time! When the British want to say they really like something, they often call it “smashing”. Which is kinda weird, why would you smash something you like? There’s something funny going on there. The strangeness, it turns out, is because “smashing” has nothing to do with the word “smash.” It (probably) traces it’s origins back to English landowners with Scottish servants. In SG “‘S math sin” means ‘that’s good’ or ‘that’s very nice’. It’s pronounced suh-mah-sheen. Which is pretty darn close to ‘smashing’. It’s possible that the Englishmen, using ‘funny’ Gaelic words to impress their friends, and started saying awesome things were ‘smashing’, and the phrase stuck.

Now, to wrap up this rather ridiculously long post, I present you with… more gratuitous me! Here’s a video of my pretty horrendous attempts to read through the first two dialogues from CSG. Yay!