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.

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.