Monday, 26 September 2016

How long DOES it take to learn Gaelic?

So, how long *does* it take to learn Gaelic?

Three years.

Next question?

OK, maybe I had better expand on that a little bit.

First off, let's rephrase the question:

'How long does it take the average person of average ability with a fairly busy life to learn Gaelic to a conversational level?'

I reckon, in my experience as a very average learner, it takes between two and a half and three years. Roughly.

If you've cast half an eye over this blog before, you'll know I am a massive fan of the BBC Radio nan Gàidheal Lerners' programme 'Beag air Bheag' with Iain Urchardan.  Every week Iain introduces 'Neach-ionnsachaidh na seachdain', Learner of the Week, and these people each have a very different story to tell.

I remember in an early series, a very busy housewife who was massively commited to bringing up her family and to her church was barely able to string a sentence together after two years of learning. However, she still admirably put herself forward for an interview, and it was done in a way that she could cope with. On the other side of the coin, in the most recent series (Series 4) you had two different dudes (Martin B and Carmine) who had pretty much reached fluency after learning for barely a year. All these people serve to inspire, be it to show that even when you barely have a second to yourself you can pick up a little bit here and there, or that if you have the time and the inclination you can immerse yourself and become fluent in a comparatively short time.

These examples are, in my view, extreme. There is no doubt in my mind that Martin B and Carmine are very intelligent and focussed men. Most of us, me included, are neither particularly daft nor particulary bright. We have jobs and social lives and make the most of our free time. While the 'Holy Grail' in Gaelic is to reach fluency, what really makes the whole thing really come to life is to reach a conversational level - a level at which we can express ourselves. If you're doing the 'regular route' of distance learning by Cùrsa Inntrigidh followed by Cùrsa Adhartais with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, that 'Eureka' moment comes roughly towards the end of the first year of Cùrsa Adhartais or during the second year.

The first two years of learning Gaelic, in my experience, can be the toughest. You learn and learn and learn and you still can't seem to be able to string a sentence together. Sure, you can say 'Ciamar a tha thu?' and as long as someone comes out with a response you know, you're good. You may get a few sentences down the line then the whole thing will stall. The person you're speaking to uses phrases and words you really don't understand, or you don't have the vocabulary to express what you want to say, and the sheer frustration makes you end up switching to English and you loose face.

However, if you keep at it and keep practicing your 'key phrases' and expanding your vocab, you'll eventually reach that Eureka moment where you hold your first conversation entirely in Gaelic. It might be broken Gaelic, there may be mistakes galore and the odd bit of 'Beurla' here and there, but you somehow manage to keep it all on track until the 'Mar sin leat' or 'Chì mi a-rithist thu' at the end. I guarantee you, the first time that happens, you'll be walking on air.

If you look back through the blog you'll see my frustration in the earlier days with the entry 'Why won't you talk to me?'

However, as I toured the Islands doing my project for 'Saoghal na Gàidhlig' (Module 7 of Cùrsa Adhartais') I found Gàidhlig gu leòr. It seems that if you stick at it, and people start to get to know you and know your story, you'll get Gaelic wherever it is found.

Of course, nobody but nobody ever stops learning Gaelic. Once you hit conversational level, the next stage is to expand your vocab and eliminate your mistakes until you hit fluency. Yet Gaelic is such a rich language, even the most fluent and learned speakers will always admit that there is plenty more out there to learn. That's the joy of Gaelic - its richness beyond measure. If you keep at it, it's all there for the taking.

You just have to keep going at your own pace; whether that is three months or three years, it really doesn't matter how long it takes to get there, just as long as you simply keep going. That's all you have to do.