Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Learner of the Week

Anyone who has been following this blog will know that I am very fond of the Gaelic Learners' Programme on BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal, Beag Air Bheag (Little by Little), currently steaming ahead through its third series. If you cannot access Radio Nan Gàidheal, you can download the podcast, or listen via the BBC website.

There is an earlier blog entry about the programme here.

On the programme there is a section called 'Neach-Ionnsachaidh na Seachdain', Learner of the Week. Learners of ALL abilities are invited onto the programme to speak of their experiences. Speak, that is, IN GAELIC!

It was way back in March this year when the Main Man Behind the Scenes, Calum, wrote to me inviting me onto the show as Learner of the Week.

Two thoughts immediately entered my head:

NO! My Gaelic is nowhere near good enough, and I'll make an idiot of myself!
YES! It will be a great experience, and to date there has never been a Learner of the Week that lives outwith Scotland.

Anyway, I reluctantly agreed but then things went quiet for a while as Series 2 was wrapped up. It took a lot of arranging to get both myself (from Dover) and presenter John Urquhart (from Skye) in a city with a BBC recording studio at the same time, but a date was eventually struck for 10th November as we would both be in Glasgow. I was holding out for a Helicopter from London or a Stretch Limo to Stornoway, but oddly enough the BBC makes slightly better use of its coffers.

Even before the date was set, the fact that I was going to be on BBC Radio Nan Gàidheal speaking Gaelic remained in the back of my head. For the entire summer I had great big fat juicy carrot dangling in front of me, helping me get on and improve my spoken Gaelic. It was that, or face the embarrassment of not being able to string together a sentence after two and half years of learning.

So what is the experience like?

To start with, it is absolutely nothing to worry about. As you might have gathered, the questions follow pretty much the same pattern for every Learner every week, so you know what you are likely to be asked. To make sure you are comfortable, you'll be sent a list of the kind of questions you'll get a couple of weeks beforehand. 'How long have you been learning Gaelic? What does Gaelic mean to you personally? Tell us something unusual about yourself...?' and so on.

For the three weeks leading up to the 'Big Day', I spent a lot of time writing out, correcting, and rehearsing my answers. My Study-Buddy MR in London was an absolute Diamond, giving me many, many hours of his time to help with my grammatical correctness and with my pronounciation.

Suitably rehearsed and drilled, I headed to the smart, swish, BBC studios at Pacific Quay in Glasgow on the set day.

Sitting in the waiting area waiting for Calum to collect me, I whipped out my smartphone and looked at the dictionary at  I knew that Calum's first question would be 'Ciamar a tha thu?' (How are you?) and I had no idea how to say 'I'm a bit nervous' in Gaelic. It's 'Tha mi beagan nearbhach', just so you know.

Up we went through the fabulous Atrium I have only ever seen on the telly to the studio itself:

I had met John many times before, so we greeted each other like old friends. Yet it wouldn't matter if you have never met him in your life - everybody who meets the man instantly loves him. I have never heard one bad word spoken about him, ever. So if you go for it, be assured you will be put at your ease and treated very gently.

With my notes written on my tablet (that's the device, not the toffee), we had what can only be described as 35 minutes of craic. All the speech training I had done with MR went out of the window. All those set phrases I had learned vanished. We just simply... chatted. I think this says a lot about Iain's journalistic expertise and people skills.

Afterwards, of course, I thought about things I wish I had said, or how I might have answered differently, but I think that would be the same for anyone in any situation. I never did say how Gaelic has enriched my life, which I really wanted to do... but I did get in a plug for the blog, so hopefully anyone who is interested will read the previous entry 'I'm Rich!'

Yes, there were mistakes. Yes, there were stutters and long pauses which will no doubt (I hope) be edited out. All that pronounciation I had learned - from 'agam' to 'uabhasach', went clean out of my head.

The producer wasn't sure when this particular recording will be broadcast, but it looks like it might be between four and six weeks. Trust me, I will keep you updated.

In hindsight, this is probably the best thing I have ever done. Why? Because when I got the first email about appearing, I could hardly string a sentence together. Suddenly I had a MA-HOOSIVE incentive to get my spoken Gaelic up to scratch. After the (self-imposed) rehearsing and practice I sat and chatted comfortably in Gaelic for 35 minutes, and we could have gone on all morning if we had had the time.

Could I have done that without Beag Air Bheag? I don't think so. Taking yourself outside of your comfort zone will improve your language skills massively.

So what are you waiting for? Best get in touch with Beag Air Bheag team. Whether or not I will be saying that after I have heard myself on air, I'm not so sure. But I cannot thank Calum, John, and the team enough for the privilege of being invited onto the programme, and for giving me the incentive to improve my Gaelic to a level that, six months ago, was beyond my wildest dreams.

Thursday, 5 November 2015


The past couple of weeks have brought a few ups and downs in my Gaelic journey, but tonight we had a bit of a Eureka moment.

Changes and improvements can happen so subtly that you don't notice that they are happening. Sometimes, we are so obsessed with what we don't know, we forget to focus on what we do know.

I suddenly realised that I am very, very rich. No, I haven't won the lottery, and a part-time job as a train guard is never going to see me trade in my truck for a Range Rover.

Let me explain... Over the past six months or so I've been toiling away at the Gaelic, but this has been made easier thanks to resources like 'Beag Air Bheag' podcasts, watching entertaining programmes like 'Fonn Fonn Fonn' on BBC iPlayer, and enjoying the Look@LearnGaelic Videos on the smart and refreshed website. My 'caraidean-cànain' (study buddies) whom I try to Skype as often as possible have been a true source of help and support.

Over the past couple of weeks I have really upped my game... I have something 'big' to aim for which happens next week, and I will tell you about that very soon. Suffice to say that with the help and support of my caraid-cànain MR in London, I've been doing tons of work on my spoken Gaelic. I've been expanding my vocab and just doing simple stuff like learning stock phrases to questions that people are always going to get... where I live, why I am studying Gaelic, what I do in my job, and so on. It sounds so simple, but one thing I had not yet done was to invest time in learning 'stock' phrases until they became second nature. OK, the 'second nature' thing has yet to come, but we are getting there.

This work, and the fact I've had a bit of grief (haven't we all) with the Anti-Gaelic Bigots recently, made me stop and take stock of my Gaelic journey. And that is what has bowled me over completely.

'What has Gaelic brought into your life?'

Oh. Mo. Chreach. I've just stopped, thought about this, realised the richness it has brought, and I am completely blown away. Where do I start?

Music - So much wonderful music I would never otherwise have discovered.

Friends - loads and loads of new friends. All there to learn new ideas from, help widen my mind, and to support each other.

Culture - Poetry and song, live music and stories. Real entertainment from people with passion and talent, not being strapped to the telly like a brain-dead force-fed zombie.

History - Still early days for me, but history is starting to come to life and actually mean something.

Geography - That deeper understanding and appreciation of the landscape when you are in the Highlands and Islands, and the place names coming to life.

Being part of something special - Gaelic is not the easiest language in the world to learn for many reasons. It's not common. So to learn it is actually something quite special and helps form a strong bond of understanding with other learners.

Having something to say - Being at a party or meeting new people. They are all talking about their jobs in the city, the football, or how they like to do DIY at weekends. You have a story to tell about Gaelic and your journey...suddenly everyone is interested. They may not understand, they might think you're a bit bonkers, but they are interested.

A safe haven - In times of trouble and crisis, Gaelic can sometimes be an anchor, a 'safe place' where you can immerse yourself for a bit. It's consitent, it's grounding, and it's not going anywhere.

Self-belief - That feeling when you realise that you have just conversed with someone, even if it was just saying what a lovely day it is. You did it!

Being a part of the bigger picture - Every single person that learns Gaelic, at any age and to any level, is contributing to the momentum of getting the language back into the mainstream.

Hope for the future - Nobody, not even the best fluent speaker, knows it all. Gaelic is a bottomless well of riches and you will never use it all up no matter how much you try. For me personally, that hope translates into the possibilty of embarking on an Honours Degree; something I have never before acheived, and something that I never thought I would ever be able to do.

That 'Eureka' moment hit me tonight when I was asked to talk for five minutes - in Gaelic - about 'Gaelic and me'. Of course I made mistakes, but I could have talked for far, far, longer.

The journey with Gaelic, as I said earlier, is one of ups and downs. But when you are on a downer, take a moment and consider the richness it has brought to YOUR life. Me, I am absolutely blown away by it.