7.01.2014

The Music of Language: Gaelic Summer

Summer is for many things—for getting much needed rest, for enjoying the sun, for catching up on all the reading that has been put off, and for rediscovering one's hobbies. One of the passions that I will be pouring myself into during the coming months is language learning, specifically investing some time into my old friend Scottish Gaelic or Gàidhlig.

I've been attracted to Gàidhlig for a long time. I'm sure it has a lot to do with learning to play the tin whistle in elementary school and watching Braveheart in junior high. There was just something about the look of the words, the melodious guttural sounds, the familiar and unfamiliar patterns and structures. I can remember eagerly scouring the internet in my father's home office for lists of phrases and vocabulary, dutifully drilling myself on grammatical constructions with James MacLaren's Beginner's Gaelic (1923) during lunch breaks as a sales associate at Border's Books, and struggling through Prof. Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh's complex phonological analyses at Fuaimean na Gàidhlig.

Credit: Joe Fox, A82 Bi-lingual Scottish Gaelic English Road Sign Scotland Uk
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As enjoyable and useful as these endeavors were, the approaches all suffered from the same drawback: they all took reading and writing as their starting point. For Gàidhlig this poses a particular challenge due to the complex and seemingly enigmatic relationship between the way the language is written and the way it is spoken. As I learned, I would continually find myself put in the frustrating position of either learning to speak phrases or words incorrectly, or of tiptoeing through a dense thicket of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) rules. It would begin to feel less and less like learning a vibrant language, and more like doing calculus or pitch-class-set analysis. There had to be another way!

I think I've found another way.

I've written previous posts about a language learning technique called "shadowing". It involves immersing yourself in a language's sounds in real time, internalizing its vocal patterns, rhythmic cadences, and phrase structures. Shadowing is essentially about the music of language; at its base level it allows you to engage with the raw sounds of a language freed from the distractions of writing, semantics and grammar. This is not to say that those aspects of the language are unimportant, but rather that the initial focus upon the musical characteristics of music engages your brain in a unique and powerful manner. It's a way of establishing a strong foundation upon which the rest of the language can confidently stand.

Here is my summer plan:

  • I am shadowing with Litir Beag, a podcast by Roddy MacIean on BBC Alba, the Gàidhlig language branch of the BBC. These "little letters" are for intermediate learners and Roddy specifically speaks the words slowly and clearly—ideal for shadowing! I do not read the Litir Beag transcripts, nor do I read the English translations—not yet. This stage is all about engaging with the sounds. Already I have noticed two interesting developments:
    • I can match sounds with much more accuracy and fluency in Gàidhlig than in a language which I know much better. Shadowing in German, for instance, is more overwhelming because my mind not only listens to sounds while speaking them back, but additionally keeps busy parsing grammatical functions, imagining written text, and visualizing descriptive or narrative meaning.
    • I can begin to intuit meaning through musical and contextual patterns in the recordings. Strings of numbers or dates have their own particular sound and cadence. Also phrases such as "he said" or "she said" stand out loud and clear because of the way Roddy performs the narrative dialogues.
  • I have just begun to shadow to another program on BBC Alba, Beag air Bheag, an educational website. Geared towards absolute beginners, this program takes you "bit by bit" through graded lessons, each unit ending with a conversational dialogue that sums up all the main points of the chapter. Again, I am avoiding reading the transcripts and the translations for the time being. The back-and-forth format of these simple dialogues allow me to intuit conversational characteristics such as questions, answers, frustration, incredulity, and affirmation.
  • The next stage in my plan involves carefully introducing the transcripts and translations to my sound world. The music of the language and the sounds that I've already internalized should continually act as the foundation. As I slowly look through Litir Beag and Beag air Bheag texts, I hope to continually say, "Oh! That's how you spell it and that's what it means!" and not "Oh! That's how you pronounce it!" There should be little to no renegotiation of the spoken sounds, though some tricky ones (such as the hurriedly spoken definite articles "an" and "am") which were unclear in the recordings can now be solidified. The point is that the writing should further illuminate and give definition to the sounds that I already know, not visa versa. 
  • This method should result in the following improvements and opportunities by the end of the summer:
    • I will have spoken a lot of Gàidhlig sounds, continually intuiting its musical patterns, cadences, and rhythms.
    • I will have a better chance of understanding the writing system and its correspondence to the sounds. Now the two can work in tandem rather than in tension and I can begin to read books with confidence.
    • I will have enjoyed myself, succeeding at doing something difficult that I love!
  • Perhaps by next summer I could be in the position to actually speak Gàidhlig with living people. It would be somewhat challenging given and sparsity of Highland villages in Southern California. :) But who knows? Skype has opened up the doors to exciting new communication opportunities, and institutions like Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Colaisde na Gàidhlig provide plenty of pedagogical resources both through distance learning and on-site visits.
Credit: Steve Greaves, Scottish Highlands
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I am very excited about this plan and think that it will prove very helpful. By engaging directly with the sounds, I will have more confidence as I move into the more theoretical and structural aspects of the language. Let me know if these ideas are inspirational, confusing, or if you have other techniques that work for you. Bottom line, I am enjoying myself and my summer. I hope you do too!


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