Legendary Linguist or Mortified Monoglot?

As Duolingo introduces a new level, “Legendary”, above the usual five — one that will turn my golden Irish skill-crowns a silvery blue-purple — I find myself wondering how much my Irish has actually improved in the months years since I started the course.

My 937-day Duolingo streak has not been solely dedicated to Irish: there was also a brief flirtation with Gaelic and Latin, and more recently, a sustained affair with Esperanto. But the Irish course remains the only one where I’ve completed all skills up to level five, and am now in a position to try and prove myself a Legend.

Racing through the no-hint ‘challenges’ required to gain Legendary status for the early skills, I can’t help but think it’s testing me more on my knowledge of Duolingo than my knowledge of Irish. Laziness has meant that, ever since I completed the Irish course, I’ve found myself “practising” skills I already knew back to front whenever my weekly XP dropped too low and I was on the verge of beeing yeeted out of the Diamond League. As a result, I have the sentences basically memorised, at least up to the first checkpoint and some way beyond it, and no longer need to really think about what the words actually mean, or how the grammar is constructed.

There’s certainly a value to the no-hint challenge; I probably overuse hints, not trusting my own memory or spelling even when I’m right, and the structure of these new Legendary lessons means they are harder than the ordinary lessons of the lower levels. But I breeze through them. One done, three done, five done, more. I’m a legend, apparently. I’ve gone from twentieth in my leaderboard to first in a day. I’m proving my linguistic skills with every correct answer.

And yet, when I go to the online Irish conversation evening I attend most weeks, my contribution is always the same. Dia duit. Tá tuirse orm, agus tú féin? Tá sé ag cur báisti i gCorcaigh. And then I lapse into silence, struggling to follow the thread of the conversation, let alone contribute to it. When I do try and speak, my clumsy sentences are peppered with English words and apologies.

My journey with Irish began four years ago, or seven years ago, or longer, depending on where you count from, and it hasn’t been limited to Duolingo — the Irish course in particular offers a woefully incomplete education in the principles of the language — but the app still symbolises the paradox of my failure to learn the language despite going through the motions. No longer a beginner, out of my depth in intermediate classes, and miles from the academic Irish I need to read the articles relevant to my field of study, I exist in a perpetual state of monolingual frustration, wondering how on earth it is people actually attain fluency in any language other than their mother tongue, since I seem completely incapable of it.

Four years ago: I spent the week at Oideas Gael in Co. Donegal, for their annual Language & Culture Summer School. Mornings were spent in the level one Irish class with the other beginners, acquiring an Ulster tinge to my Irish that has never entirely faded. Afternoons were spent set-dancing, the Irish instructions more or less incomprehensible to me and my partner, a classmate from level one. Some of them we figured out through logic and process of elimination (“the door says slí amach, so amach must mean ‘out’!”); others we replaced with our own terms (“swap the women!”), having given up on parsing the language being called out as we frantically copied the others in our set.

I left Donegal exhausted and headache-ridden, but with slightly more Irish than I had when I arrived. I intended to go back — last year, this year — but Covid and practicalities have so far interfered with those plans.

The most important vocab: “I would like a cup of tea, please. Thank you.”

Before that, seven years ago: an optimistic fresher with big ideas about how well I’d cope with the workload at Cambridge, I signed up for the extracurricular modern Irish classes being held in the department. I made it most of the way through the term, overwhelmed and exhausted and completely incapable of remembering anything I learned, before I acknowledged that it was never going to happen and dropped out.

Before that… what came before that? Teenage me discovering an early precursor of Duolingo, a website that promised to teach me Irish through flashcards. I learned dia duit and the names of some animals and little else; the one that stuck was féileacán, butterfly. I’m not sure why that word, more than or madra. It charmed me, I think, and in that moment I began to understand Irish as a living language, one that real people spoke, which wasn’t limited to fantasy novels and Clannad.

Before that: not much. The Clannad CD my uncle bought me. Learning Siúil a Rún by ear, with no idea what the words actually meant, the taste of the sounds in my mouth little more than nonsense syllables endlessly repeated.

Where did my Irish journey begin? Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 20. And then it went in circles, endlessly, never breaking out of the loop.

I’m being unfair to myself, of course. I know that I’ve improved from where I was seven years ago, or even where I was four years ago. But how much? Enough to justify the hours spent on Futurelearn, Duolingo, in online classes at UCC and Oideas Gael? Enough to make me believe I’ll ever be anything other than a monolingual Anglophone? Enough to read the articles my supervisor recommends without recourse to Google Translate, a dictionary, and several hours of crying? Enough to stop feeling like an outsider in my field, an impostor, incapable of catching up to those who grew up in Ireland and took Irish at school and never had to go through this painful, painstaking process as an adult?

There’s something intensely alienating about being an English person in Celtic Studies — about being any non-Irish person — and not having Irish, and not knowing how to get it, either.

I have five years of studying Old Irish under my belt, and two more years of independent research on the literature. And yet Modern Irish has never been part of my training, and now, as I move into looking more at early modern material, I feel keenly the lack of it. My inability to read scholarship written in Irish feels disrespectful, but I’ve yet to find out how on earth I’m meant to learn academic Irish. Classes for adults and international students focus on conversation, and the rhythms of dialogue are miles from the complicated passive constructions of academic articles. I have been taught how to give directions, but not what to do when a writer insists on putting their sub-clauses first. I’ve learned how to describe the furniture in my bedroom (when will I ever need this?!), but not the technical vocabulary for the collection of folklore and oral storytelling.

There’s a wall, and I’ve hit it: the endless purgatory of the advanced beginner, the lower intermediate learner, the medievalist with a solid understanding of the grammar who can’t string a sentence together. Classes where the genitive is considered too complicated go over my head in terms of finding the words to make myself understood, and I want to say, Old Irish has four and a half cases, I’m not afraid of the tuiseal ginideach, just teach me how to speak. I can read more than I can understand but my memory fails me when I come to write. My anxiety fills me with distrust in my own ability to remember a word and its usage, and so every sentence I speak is prefaced by apologies and followed by a hasty translation into English, in case I wasn’t understood.

I’m perpetually aware of my outsider status. English in Ireland. English and studying medieval Irish literature. English and explaining the Táin to Irish people, feeling like I’m sasanachsplaining, feeling like one of these days, somebody’s going to tell me I have no right to think I understand Cú Chulainn better than they do, when for four years my research has revolved around him. Self-conscious about my pronunciation at conferences and in videos, second-guessing every name. Unable to explain to supervisors and faculty exactly how bad my Modern Irish is, because they assume I’m being self-deprecating, used to Irish students who, despite their protests and claims that “the way it’s taught” means they’ve learned nothing, still have twelve years of study under their belt. Frustrated at how few resources there seem to be to reach the level I need, because the answer feels like I just asked for directions from an unhelpful uncle: “Well, if I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t have started here…”

Tá Gaeilge agam remains a lie, despite all my promises to myself and despite all my efforts otherwise. But my Duolingo account shows an Irish tree glowing gold and now, partially, a silvery blue-purple that tells me I’m a legend.

Yeah, right. A legend about an anxious Sasanach, verbose in English and silent in Irish, passionate about the Ulster Cycle and afraid to pronounce the Irish name of it. Rúraíocht. Google Translate struggles with that one. Rory? it offers hopefully, and I can’t even mock it, because it handles the sentences in this article I’m reading a lot better than I do, untangles the knots of their construction so that all that’s left for me is to repair the torn threads where a technical term slipped through its net.

What do you buy an Ulster Cycle nerd for Christmas? A framed print of a Cú Chulainn illustration and multiple versions of the Táin.

The real reason I don’t speak at Irish classes and conversation evenings is because I’m ashamed. Ashamed of my outsider’s tongue, ashamed of my failures to learn, ashamed that I seem to have no facility for languages at all. My sensory processing issues and poor memory team up to leave me bewildered and speechless whenever I’m put on the spot, unable to comprehend a word that’s said to me or, if I manage that, find the words to respond. For somebody who can make English dance to their tune and has been known to talk for six hours straight, this wordlessness is humiliating.

It will be good for your Irish, says my supervisor, when I tell him how hard I find reading articles in Irish. Wait, you can read Old Irish but Modern Irish is a struggle? ask incredulous internet friends, not realising that when it comes to Old Irish, nobody is trying to take my dictionary away from me, and nobody is asking me to shape my own thoughts into the language. Only to unravel others’, and that’s easier, because try as I might, my thoughts seem unshakeably English in their nature, and resist the process of dismantling required to remake them into something that makes sense in Irish.

I’m not monolingual by choice. But I seem incapable of being anything else.

And so I go back to Duolingo. Maybe this time, by the time I’ve got through the course, I’ll dare say more than I’m tired and it’s raining in Cork. Maybe I’ll start to trust my tongue not to fail me and my memory to give me the right words. Maybe I’ll stop freezing whenever anyone addresses me directly in conversation.

Maybe, but probably not.

Legendary, indeed.


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