Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Flagging up Gaelic

One of the best things about learning Gaelic is that it is unlike learning almost any other living language in the world.

The perception of Gaelic is a complex subject that I am sure a professor could write a thesis about. It's something that goes beyond the remit of a Learner's Blog.

However, even little old me had a question that stumped everyone when my employer launched a new uniform and new design of name badge for its front line staff. A lovely touch they decided upon was to put flags on name badges to represent the languages that the wearer speaks, in order to give people visual reassurance that you can communicate with them in (hopefully at least one) language that they would be comfortable using.

French and Dutch are straighforward enough. The languages are pretty much indelibly linked to France and the Netherlands.

However, the spanner in the works came with Gàidhlig. What flag represents that?

I asked respected Academics and Agencies, and in all cases was met by an uncomfortable shuffling and a 'Hmm, not sure. We'll get back to you.' Nobody did.

All I did manage to find out is that there were only two companies in Scotland who gave Gaelic-speaking customer-facing employees badges to wear if they wished to do so. These badges carried the text 'Tha Gàidhlig agam' which is great, but didn't fit the design brief in this case.

Slowly it dawned on me that this was probably the first case of its kind - at least until someone can come along and claim otherwise. In other words, maybe this was the first case of a Gaelic speaker in a Customer Services role wishing to display a 'Gaelic flag' on a name badge.

As such, we decided upon the Saltire. Admittedly, it's not technically 'correct,' as the Saltire represents Scotland, not just the Gàidhealtachd. In the same manner, the Union Jack represents the UK, not just the English speakers, but these flags do the job they're meant to do.

This brings me nicely on to the promotion and use of Gaelic in the big wide world. In my short and limited experience, it does appear that many native fluent speakers don't really bother to use their Gaelic on people they don't know. It's almost as if it's a precious thing that has to be kept in the box for special occasions. Meanwhile, us Learners/New Speakers seize every chance we get to speak Gaelic, and speak it we do.

Despite the fact my job is based in London, I treat my passengers to a blast of Gaelic when we set off:

'A chàirdean, madainn mhath/feasgar math. 'S e Anndra an t-ainm a th' orm, agus 's e ur manaidsear trèana a th' annam. Fàilte air bord Eurostar a' dol a Pharis/a Lunnain/a Dhisneyland/dhan Bhruiseal. Tha mi a' guidhe tùras math dhuibh.'

It's brief enough not to annoy those not interested, but long enough to make any Gaelic speakers feel at home and warmly welcome,  especially in an environment where this wouldn't be expected.

'Putting it out there' has only resulted in positive events. I met M and her family from the Isle of Lewis after they nearly choked on their breakfast in disbelief on their way to Disneyland. We keep in touch and have become good friends. Recently I took Dougal to M's daughter's school near Stornoway to show the kids the Cool Dog on a Motorbike.

Linguists take an interest of course, but another bonus is that it's also a great ice breaker for people who simply want to have a chat. 'What was that 'other' language you spoke?' people will often ask, and off I rattle excitedly about Scottish Gàidhlig as if someone has just lit my blue touch paper.

It's all good. The only other Gaelic announcements I've heard so far are the pre-recorded ones on CalMac Ferries. One skipper once slipped 'Madainn mhath' into his welcome, but that's been about it. I've not heard any other individual make general customer announcements in Gaelic yet. However, there is one person doing so on a train out of London. It would be great if more people did so and took Gaelic outside into the everyday world.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Why won't you talk to me?

Apologies for the lack of posts for a while… many other learners out there will appreciate that it’s been end of term assessment time here in Scotland.

However, with the business done, it’s time to enjoy a couple of weeks holiday, and where else but in the Outer Hebrides where at least you can practice your Gaelic?

Or can you?

As hinted at in an earlier entry, there are many reasons that a Gael may be reticent to speak Gaelic with someone they don’t know. I had a very interesting conversation with a Gaelic crew member on a CalMac ferry about it, which I shall come to later.

But first, just to give you an idea of what it’s like, let me tell you about my experience trying to buy a pint of milk in the community store this afternoon. As I was browsing the shelves, I heard the shop assistant chatting away in Gaelic to a regular customer. I got to the till, put my bottle of milk on the counter, and the conversation went exactly like this:

Me: ‘Feasgar math. Seo a-nis.’
Shop Assistant: ‘That’ll be one pound ten please.’
Me: ‘Obh…tha mi duilich, chan eil deich sgilling agam. Sin sibh.’
SA: ‘Thanks… and that’s ten pence change.’
Me: ‘Mòran taing. Mar sin leibh!’
SA: ‘Thank you, bye.’

I left the shop just about ready to give it all up.

On the ferry over to the islands, I got talking to a very nice crew member from Barra, a native speaker. We chatted about Gaelic, and I asked why so many people are reticent to speak it, especially outwith people they know.

The lady explained in a roundabout way that she, like many, is a little embarrassed of her Gaelic. It’s not what she considers ‘proper’ Gaelic. She gave two examples. One was when she worked on a ship with another Gael who flatly refused to understand her Gaelic (like the interaction above where there wasn’t even the smallest attempt to engage) and always spoke to her in English. Another was when the BBC journalist Andreas Wolf travelled on her ship and spoke to her. You may remember my earlier entry about Andreas, one of the few people people I am totally in awe of. Despite being a ‘new speaker’ (the latest term for ‘learner’), his Gaelic is perfect. And that was this lady’s problem… in her eyes, her Gaelic was not perfect. She was embarrassed. So she hardly ever speaks it. As we all know with languages, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it,’ and here we witness yet another Gaelic speaker fading into history…

The 'wrong' Gaelic

If we go back to the 70s and earlier, it was almost impossible to hear a presenter or narrator speak with a regional accent or dialect on British TV and national radio. It was always ‘The Queen’s English.’ Only in the 80s did regional accents become popular and accepted into the mainstream. Of course, there is still pub or messroom banter at work between friends mocking the ‘funny’ way they say things if they are from another British region, but personally I have never witnessed anyone saying that something is ‘wrong’ if it is pronounced differently. I say bath and you say bath yet we both say father. I say rolls and you say cobs. I say little and you say wee. 

However, it appears that in the minds of many Gaels, there are no Gaelic dialects. Barra does not have a dialect, Lewis does not have a dialect, Uist does not have a dialect… instead you  have Barra Gaelic, Lewis Gaelic, Uist Gaelic… and countless other ‘Gaelics’ like Harris, Skye, Argyll, Islay…

Yet for some reason, in the minds of many Gaelic speakers, there is no ‘different’ Gaelic dialect, only ‘wrong’ Gaelic. ‘Oh, we don’t say that HERE’ has been spat at me on more than one occasion after saying the ‘wrong’ word.

Maybe what many native speakers don’t realise is that us learners/'new speakers' are exposed to all kinds of Gaelic, but this itself is taught within the Gaelic Orthographic Convention oojimaflip. No, even I don’t understand why certain things like the numbering system had to change. The French seem to manage quite well with a non-decimal counting system (‘sixty-ten, four twenties, four twenties ten’) and some of the spellings would have been better left as they were. I’d have been able to pronounce ‘feuch’ correctly far quicker if it was still ‘fiach’. However, I’m still getting my head around three ways to say ‘because’ (air sgath, o chionn, air sàillibh) for three different dialects, and I notice that Iain Urchardan’s  wonderful ‘Beag air Bheag’ Learner’s Programme on the radio goes to great lengths to include at least three different dialects every week.

The refusal of many Gaelic speakers to engage in conversation is one of the biggest challenges I have come across. I’m more forgiving of those who at least try at first, but switch to English at the first mistake, although that is still a bugbear. However, you can’t blame anybody for not having the patience to indulge the mistakes of a Learner. It’s annoying, but that is the price we pay for steamrollering English as the language of all communication throughout the entire UK.

Cùm a' dol

I shall leave you with a positive story.

A few months ago, during a weekend school at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the tutor wheeled in a former student of the course we’re on, who is now completing his degree in Gaelic. This chap’s parents were Gaelic speakers but never, ever spoke to him in their native tongue. He was brought up in English and had to learn Gaelic through college.

Eventually, this chap told us, he rang up his Dad and spoke Gaelic to him. His father answered him in English. He continued in Gaelic. His father answered in English. Apparently, the whole conversation went like this. A bit like my conversation with the shop assistant.

The next time he phoned, he spoke Gaelic. His father answered in English. And so on and so on for the next three or four phone calls.

Finally, on the fifth or sixth phone call, the man’s father conversed in Gaelic, and they continue to do so to this day.

It was an inspiring talk he gave us. We just need to keep focussed on speaking Gaelic and not giving up hope. Other folks’ reticence to engage us in Gaelic is just another challenge that makes it all the more interesting. A bit like the genitive case. I’ll tell you this, Gaelic is not for wimps.

The question is, how many pints of milk will I have to buy to achieve the same result with the shop assistant?