Tag: Gaeilge

Breaking The Streak

Last week was a week of endings: projects completed, tethers cut, deadlines met. One friend handed in her PhD; another passed their viva. I handed in pass pages for Moth to a Flame, the last book in a trilogy I started in 2014 with a character I created in January 2012. And I also uninstalled Duolingo and said farewell to my 1850-day streak.

It would be weird to blog about my friends’ PhDs, and I haven’t entirely processed my feelings about coming to the end of the project I’ve been working on for my entire adult life, so today I’m going to talk about the last of these endings: my break-up with the owl.

It wasn’t, I should say, primarily or wholly an act of protest. The team behind Duolingo have made many choices in recent months and years that I have disliked, any one of which would have been reason enough to leave — the restructuring of the “tree” into a path where you can’t choose what topic to focus on and spend all your time stuck repeating the same five things over and over again; the decision to stop supporting and updating certain courses, including the Welsh course; the alleged reliance on AI at the cost of human jobs; the general way that the gamification and microtransactions of the platform have gradually overwhelmed the learning experience…

All of these would have been good reasons to leave. But the Irish course, which has been my primary focus for a long time, has never been a particularly well-constructed course. For a long time it lacked audio for the vast majority of sentences; a year or so ago they changed this with the addition of computer-generated voices that are, at times, so unclear it’s impossible to answer a question correctly. It contains far less vocabulary than many better-supported courses (only around 1700 words), hadn’t been updated in years, always lacked meaningful grammar notes, and was bereft of any of the features like stories and dialogues that appear in the French course and a few others.

They’d been talking about a new Irish “tree” for years, but it never materialised. I held out hope that it would, and continued to use the one that existed, because while deeply, deeply imperfect, it was better than nothing.

And this, I think, characterised my entire relationship with Duolingo. It was better than nothing, and nothing was likely to describe my learning without it. I struggled with motivation but, more than anything, I struggled with continuity — so while I might do ten exercises from a book in two days in a fit of enthusiasm, it would be followed by months of not touching the book at all.

The Duolingo streak is a flawed metric of progress, but it is also very, very useful. Two minutes a day, five minutes a day, ten minutes a day — it’s not a big commitment, and as the numbers rack up on that streak, it becomes harder and harder to say, “Nah, I don’t feel like it.” It forces consistency. And while two minutes a day isn’t enough to teach you a language, it will teach you a lot more than zero minutes a day.

It did teach me a lot more than zero minutes a day would have done. Maybe I don’t recall every single one of those 1700 words, but I can recognise them, and I could probably cobble a sentence together with most of them. There are a lot of jokes about the kinds of vocabulary and phrases that Duolingo teaches, and how useless they are, but multiple times I’ve been in conversations with more fluent speakers and discovered I know a word they’ve forgotten, because I learned it from Duolingo. There are even grammar rules I’ve learned from Duo, through sheer repetition.

1850 days.

I have been learning Irish for a very long time. I’ve tried, in the past, to outline the shape of my learning journey. It hasn’t been a quick one, or a consistent one, or a direct one. It’s been interrupted by life, redirected into Old Irish, disrupted by my sensory processing issues, and delayed by my poor memory. But perhaps that 1850-day streak gives us the best estimate. Five years ago, in early 2019, I decided that this was the year I was going to commit to learning modern Irish. And Duolingo was one of the tools I was going to use to do that.

1850 days is a long time. Five years is a long time, and the past five years have been particularly chaotic for me. I’ve moved house nine times since I started that Duolingo streak. Nine! I’ve moved to Ireland, and then back. I’ve started a job, left a job, done an MA, got top surgery, had another job, started a PhD, published two novels, written a bunch more — in other words, my Duolingo streak has been pretty much the most stable thing in my life since I was 23.

Of course, it would be misleading if I didn’t acknowledge that there were chunks of that time when I was learning Esperanto, or Welsh, or flirting with Latin, or poking around the Scottish Gaelic course. But for the most part, I’ve been doing some kind of Irish learning throughout those five years. Sometimes, it’s been active: taking classes, attending conversation groups, going to the Gaeltacht, doing exercises out of a book. Sometimes, it’s been passive: idly scrolling Twitter and trying to decipher tweets as Gaeilge, putting RnaG on in the background, or — most commonly — doing the bare minimum to keep my Duolingo streak and then checking out for the day.

The bare minimum, it turns out, is still something.

So why have I uninstalled the app?

Not as an act of protest, but as an act of love. Of respect for myself and my progress. Of acknowledgment, because I’ve come a long way. Of appreciation for the Irish language as something more than a daily obligation and a rote exercise.

Duolingo has been useful to me — more useful than you might expect. I notice that words come to mind more quickly when I’m regularly in practice with vocab-matching than when I’m not. Perhaps, if they hadn’t redesigned the learning ‘tree’, it would have continued to be useful, because I could force myself to re-do the verb exercises I struggle with (will I ever remember the forms for the future tense?), but now, denied the opportunity to choose what to work on, I’ve reached a point where it can take me no further. I probably reached this point a while back, but I owe it to myself to finally acknowledge it, and move on.

I am a long way from fluent in Irish. My grammar is bad, and I struggle to put sentences together coherently, making conversation challenging. I understand much more than I speak, but am embarrased about my inability to respond. It sometimes feels like fluency is a completely unobtainable dream, meant only for others more linguistically talented than me; after all, if it were possible, wouldn’t it be closer by now, after all these years?

Maybe. Maybe I am fundamentally bad at languages, and will never be fluent.

But last month, I finished reading six books in Irish — children’s/YA books, for the most part, with simpler language, but I read them. I’m currently reading my first adult novel in Irish, and following it. I attend classes and conversation groups, and despite my poor grammar and tendency to be “ag déanamh” everything rather than risk another verb, I make myself understood. I find myself thinking in Irish, talking to myself in Irish (or in a horrific combination of Irish and English…). I’ll never particularly enjoy radio, because auditory processing isn’t my strong point, but I can pick out the meaning of headlines and news reports, rather than it feeling like a wash of meaningless noise. I watch documentaries on TG4, and draw connections between the Irish words I’m hearing and the English subtitles I’m reading, transcribing the audio in my mind into words I know I’ve seen.

A year ago, I said that I owed it to myself to acknowledge my progress, rather than always making self-deprecating jokes about my inability. Now I think I owe it to myself to stop treating myself like a beginner. I need to stop treating the language like an exercise and start living through it.

What do I mean by that? I don’t live in a Gaeltacht area, or even in Ireland. (I miss seeing the street signs and posters in Irish that I used to see when I lived in Cork.) The majority of people I interact with have no Irish. Conversations are in English, street signs are in English, forms and labels and websites are in English.

But, you see, I can read in it now.

From the outside, this seems like academic progress. “Well done, you can do basic reading comprehension exercises, move to the next TEG level” or whatever. But from the inside, this feels like a breakthrough, even though I’m still slow and stumbling and reliant on getting the gist of a sentence rather than grasping every word. This isn’t just about making progress in class, but about fundamentally moving forward in my relationship with the language.

Because I’m a reader. That’s what I do, almost every day, in English: I read. Hundreds of books a year. I read far more than I watch TV — or socialise, to be honest. It would be fair to say it’s my primary hobby, as well as a crucial part of my work as a PhD student and my life as a writer. A good chunk of every day is reading. Where conversation classes and TG4- or RnaG-assisted immersion felt like an active commitment and an attempt to Learn Irish™, reading is just… what I do. If I can do that in Irish, then Irish can start to be a part of my life, not just homework.

And if it’s part of my life, then I don’t need an app and an alarm and a streak and a threat to make me do a little bit every day, because it’s already there. It’s already in my mind, and in how I’m seeing the world around me, and in the books I’m reading. The consistency will come naturally, and without the sour edge of resentment: “Ugh, hang on, I gotta do my Duolingo now.”

In other words, I can live in it.

I am grateful to Duolingo for everything it has taught me. I’m frustrated with the roadblocks it put in the way of that learning through unhelpful updates. I resent that something as simple as a daily streak could have such a hold over me that deciding to uninstall it felt like a massive life decision. But mostly, I’m ready to move on. The owl got me this far, and now it’s time to fledge and leave the nest myself.

Go raibh maith agat agus slán, a Duo.

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.