On Learning Irish (Slowly)

A couple of weeks ago, Timehop reminded me that it was eight years since I bought my first Irish-language book: Ulchabháin Óga, Gabriel Rosenstock’s translation of Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson’s Owl Babies. This was one of my favourite picture books as a small child, and is often quoted in my family, so when I started learning Irish and discovered there was an Irish-language version, I bought it immediately.

I shared the post with a joke about how my reading level hasn’t really improved in the last eight years, but on later reflection, I had to admit that this was unfair to myself. Not only was I not continually studying modern Irish for that eight years — in fact, for the first 3.5 years of that period I wasn’t studying it at all, because it proved too confusing on top of my medieval Irish studies — but I also have improved, and I’m doing myself a disservice not to acknowledge that.

For example, last summer I read An Leon, An Banríon agus An Prios Éadaigh (The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe), and while progress on An Capall agus A Ghiolla (The Horse and His Boy) has been slow, that’s been far more to do with fatigue and available brainpower than my language skills. True, I’m able to read the Narnia books in part because I read them so many times in English as a child that I have a sense of the gist of the story, even where I can’t follow the exact wording, but that doesn’t negate the fact that a children’s novel like that is a big step up from Ulchabháin Óga. When I’m done with these, next on the list is probably An Príonsa Beag (The Little Prince), and I’m looking forward to one day tackling An Hobad (The Hobbit), but I think that’s a long way away yet.

By making self-deprecating jokes about my reading level not having progressed in eight years, I’m undermining the work that I’ve put in to improve, and that only reinforces the part of my brain that feels like I’ve made no progress and will never attain anything resembling language competency, let alone fluency. And trust me, that part of my brain doesn’t need the help. So, I decided to be stern with myself: no more denying my progress, even if there hasn’t been as much of it as I hoped. Let’s focus on what I have achieved.

And, partly in the light of this, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about language learning strategies, and the ways in which I’ve inadvertently sabotaged my own Irish learning by trying to do things the way I thought I was “supposed” to do them. None of the conclusions I’ve come to will be any surprise to anybody who knows anything about language pedagogy, I suspect, but they seem — like languages themselves — to be the kind of thing I could only learn by doing it myself.

I got off to a bit of a rocky start with Irish, not least because I learned medieval Irish first and therefore my grasp of grammar is about eight hundred years out of date. My early attempts at learning didn’t follow any recommended structures or map neatly onto TEG levels, so efforts to work out whether I would be classed as an A2 or B1 learner (terms that still mean little to me) were always wildly skewed by not knowing the “expected” vocab but knowing a fair amount of other vocab instead. My listening and speaking skills were, understandably, weaker than those of people with more opportunities to speak Irish IRL: learning independently offers few opportunities for conversation, and my auditory processing issues mean I struggle to listen to the radio in English, let alone in Irish.

But when I realised, a couple of years ago, that I’d learned things in the “wrong” order, my instinct was to try and squeeze myself into the straitjacket of structured learning. I knew that vocab was a problem and I was missing a lot of the expected terminology, so I found a Memrise course that followed TEG levels and set about trying to learn all of the required terms for the A1 and A2 courses.

This was… phenomenally boring.

I don’t know about you, but trying to make myself do things that are boring is like pulling teeth. I can’t do it. I loathe being bored. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never managed to stay in any one job long-term; by the six-month mark I’m getting the mental equivalent of itchy feet. Boredom is the mind-killer, and trying to motivate myself to sit down with a long list of vocab I had no personal investment in, because it was what I was “supposed” to know, came pretty close to making me give up on Irish entirely.

It’s not that I don’t need to know that vocabulary, or that structured courses are a bad idea. And learning lists of vocab can be incredibly useful when it comes to giving yourself the tools you need to muddle through a conversation: it’s useless knowing the grammar if you have no words to put into those sentences. I credit Memrise with helping me get through A-Level French — and my subsequent studies in medieval Irish, too, with all the custom lists of vocab I made to help hammer those words into my head.

But when it came to learning modern Irish and actually engaging meaningfully with the language, measuring my progress against those arbitrary standards and trying to force my brain to care about lists of words chosen by an unseen organisation was not inspiring, and it didn’t foster a love of the language. There was a crucial difference between sitting myself down with a TEG vocab course, and making a list of words as an undergrad to help me survive the unseen translation exam. The lists I made as an undergrad were relevant to me. They were words I needed, to achieve my aims with the language. This list? Wasn’t mine. Didn’t mean anything to me. Why, then, was I forcing myself to spend time on it?

Picking up Narnia in translation was an act of self-compassion. I knew that my reading skills were stronger than my speaking and listening skills (and, indeed, my writing skills). I knew that I knew the story, but wouldn’t know all of the words. I thought that giving myself the chance to use what I did know to figure out what I didn’t would be more engaging and teach me more than punishing myself with vocabulary — and it was. I felt a sense of accomplishment I never got from finishing a Memrise course, and while I wouldn’t say I recall too much of the new vocabulary I picked up from the book, it did help me better recognise sentence structures and phrases used in fiction.

For me, as somebody whose interest in Irish is primarily an interest in Irish stories, learning how storytelling works is useful. It is something I want to know about the language. But more than that, it provided a framework in which the other vocabulary I’d learned could actually be useful to me.

For example, one thing I’ve done repeatedly in Irish language courses and always found dull is learning how to describe my room. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t often sit around with my friends and say, “So how many bookshelves are in your room? My bedside table is on the rug. The rug is green. There is a lamp on the table.” (Except, perhaps, in the context of having recently moved house.) But sometimes, in fiction, they describe rooms. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but it hadn’t really occurred to me before that here was an application for all that vocab I’d been diligently trying and failing to memorise.

Lucy came to Mr Tumnus’s house for the first time, and the narrator told us about his cosy little home, and how the furniture was laid out, and what was on the table — and I learned all the words I had been failing to learn, without it ever feeling like a box-ticking exercise. It was amazing how much more compelling a topic could be once it was placed in a context where I might actually use it, and while, again, this sounds painfully obvious, it was one of those things that just hadn’t occurred to me. My main Irish-language conversations happen on a Zoom Oíche Comhrá, where nobody’s furniture is ever discussed at length, or on courses in Donegal in the summer, where the topic has also never come up. But in a story, when describing a setting… yes, that could be useful after all.

And this, I realised, was at the heart of it. I was never going to get to grips with the language in the abstract, as a list of topics I was Supposed To Know. I needed to get to grips with it on a level that meant something to me, that was useful to me, that had a frame of reference in my head.

And yet, somehow, I forgot this lesson, and went back to my vocab lists. I do at least make my own these days: I keep a list of words I learn in classes, and add them to Memrise afterwards to try and consolidate the lesson, which I find useful. (I have a poor memory, and will never remember vocab otherwise.) I write down the words I look up in An Capall agus A Ghiolla, and I add those too. I look up words from tweets, news articles, documentaries, and pop those into the list for future reference.

And then I started adding words I picked up from a list of nature vocabulary, and I got stuck. No matter how many times I went over the flashcards, they wouldn’t stay in my head. I could remember a few, but the rest skittered away and I muddled them up over and over again.

I thought at first that I was just stressed (there’s been a lot of that lately), and it was inhibiting my ability to remember words, but when I actually thought about it, I realised what the problem was: these words meant nothing to me in English, either. I didn’t know what a pitted bog was, or a bog hole. I thought I knew the difference between a pasture and a meadow, but I wasn’t totally clear on that, and what was a water meadow? There was probably a significant difference between a moor and a heath, but I couldn’t have told you what that was, either.

I am a child of suburban London. I have learned more about nature over the last few years, but I still don’t have the understanding of these terms that somebody in rural Ireland would have. The reason I was struggling to distinguish between the Irish words was because I had no mental hooks to hang them on, nothing to relate them to. Half the time, I needed to look up what the English translation meant, because the word in the dictionary was only passingly familiar.

And what it took for me to realise that this was the problem was compiling another list of vocab: words relating to librarianship. Words that do have hooks in my brain, because I am a library assistant. With each word that I added to the list, I could imagine using it. I don’t have a particularly visual brain, but I can remember pictures I’ve seen; I can hold a picture of my workplace in my head, and look around it, and mentally label things with Irish words. Those words mean something to me. Those are words I can imagine using, if I went to a library in search of Irish-language material.

So of course they would be easier to learn, the same way that the first words I learned in Irish mostly related to musical instruments. I already had somewhere in my brain to put them, so they weren’t just sloshing around, ready to leak out the second I wasn’t actively practising them.

I don’t intend to give up on learning those unfamiliar Irish words. I was prompted to add them in the first place because I was watching a nature documentary on TG4 and wanted to recognise more of the language without reading the subtitles. But I’ve realised from all of this that I will have far more success with learning if I allow my own life to direct my learning, and if I look up terms that I might use (and will therefore reinforce with use, rather than forget immediately). More than that, I’ll have far more fun if I learn through things I want to do, like reading a book, than through things I would never do in another context (describing my bedroom furniture to a stranger).

And, honestly: yes, directions in Irish are hard, and I struggle with all the different words to represent a static direction, moving towards a direction, and coming from that direction. But the biggest problem with learning to give directions in Irish is that I have no sense of direction, full stop, and struggle to give them in English. No wonder I was finding that a particularly hard part of any lower intermediate class I took.

I would like to be able to engage with Irish more in my everyday life, and it’s tricky, because I don’t live in Ireland, let alone in an Irish-speaking area, so I’m rarely around other Gaeilgeoirí. But step one to doing that is one I can do for myself: work out what I want to have the words to express in Irish, and find those words. Then, and only then, will the language start to take shape in my brain.


  1. Atara says:

    Thanks for this! Ever since we decided not to move to Israel last year (after a long time dreaming about it) I’ve dropped all my Hebrew language learning.

    I had mostly used memorization games like utalk and drops and Duolingo, but this made me wonder if trying to read books or listen to podcasts or some other form of consuming actual Hebrew content (which is actually how most of my Hebrew education happened while I was in school) would be more fun, sustainable, and effective.

    I really appreciate the food for thought.

    Also, kudos for reexamining yourself depreciation.

    • Finn Longman says:

      I think the games and apps are useful and have their place, particularly for keeping it ticking over and doing a little bit each day (that’s definitely a big part of their value for me). But sometimes long-form stuff that involves actually engaging with the language as a means of experiencing a story, learning information, or participating in an activity rather than simply for the purpose of learning the language will be more positive. Otherwise the language is like… an exercise and a thing we keep in a box, and not a living thing that allows us to engage with the world, you know?

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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