Tag: languages

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.

Fear or Love?

A couple of days ago, I watched tick, tick…BOOM! For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, a semi-autobiographical story about an aspiring composer called Jon. About to hit his thirtieth birthday, Jon is panicking that he’s achieved nothing (“Sondheim had his first musical produced when he was twenty-seven!”), and worried that he’s spent eight years working on a musical that will never see the light of day. He’s haunted by the ever-present sense that time is running out, a ticking clock in the background. Around him, the AIDS crisis intensifies the sense that life is fleeting and that every moment has to count.

Jonathan Larson eventually wrote Rent, which proved to be a major success, winning awards and running on Broadway for years. But he never saw it happen: he died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before it opened. In the end, he was right that the clock was ticking and time was short, though he couldn’t have known how true it would be for him.

I thought it was an excellent film: unapologetic about being a musical, while still making the songs make sense in the real-world context. Some musicals go too far with explaining why people are singing, while others don’t bother at all, accepting it as a conceit of the genre; this one walks a middle ground. The music makes sense because we’re in Larson’s head, seeing the world his way, and he makes everything into music. It’s a film by and for people who love musicals, and it isn’t trying to be anything it’s not; I appreciated that.

I also thought Andrew Garfield was great as Larson — incredibly convincing. I’ve only ever seen him as Spiderman, and had no idea he could sing, but it definitely feels like a role he earns. I don’t think it’s the kind of film where you have to have seen Rent to enjoy it (or, if you have seen it, you don’t have to like it), but there are definitely added layers if you have: little details that echo the lyrics or dialogue.

So: it’s a good film. But it also felt incredibly targeted towards all my own fears and insecurities. I, too, am haunted by that ticking clock, that sense that time is passing around me and I’m stuck in a loop, never progressing, waiting to actually start living the life I’ve been working towards for years. By the time The Butterfly Assassin is released, it will have been eight years since I started working on it — the same length of time Jon spent on his musical — and while this one will see the light, there are more than a dozen other novels that won’t. And I’m haunted by the constant threat of loss, though my own anxiety about the mortality of loved ones is far less justified than that of somebody living through the AIDS crisis and going to funerals every other week; it’s very much just how my personal species of brainweasels manifests.

It was probably inevitable, then, that a few hours after watching the film, I got caught in an anxiety spiral about the future. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Why aren’t I already doing it? I made the mistake of accidentally reading a friend’s post about the things they were learning in their current postgrad programme and was struck by the irrational sense of being left behind, the kind of instinct that has me second-guessing my decision not to apply for a PhD straight away. I’ve missed my chance for this year, I found myself thinking, and if I apply next year I won’t start until the year after that and they’ll all be so far ahead of me and I’m wasting time I’m wasting time I’m wasting time — all for a path I haven’t actually decided I’m going to go down.

I thought: I’ve got to start working on my Irish again. I thought: I have to write another book. I thought: I have to do something, why aren’t I doing anything, what am I waiting for? I could hear it myself: tick tick tick tick. Time trickling away, counting down to the inevitable explosion — implosion — destruction. No matter how much I tried to tell myself that I’m already on my way to making progress, it didn’t shake the crushing sense of urgency.

And then I remembered the question somebody asks Jon in tick, tick…BOOM!: fear or love?

Why stay? Why keep working towards a distant dream — because you love it, or because you’re too afraid to let go of something you formed your personality around? Are you being led forward by your passion and enthusiasm or are you being chased by your anxiety? What’s the real driving force here: is it fear, or is it love?

I decided not to apply for a PhD yet because I knew doing so would be driven by impostor syndrome instead of passion, and I was right about that. But it seems I’m going to have to keep reminding myself of that, because it’s too easy to let the fear talk me into urgency, to point me towards the ticking clock instead of the world of other possibilities. If I go back to academia, I want it to be because of love for my subject — not fear that I’m being left behind, that I’m not good enough, that I’m somehow inferior to the friends who have done / are doing PhDs already.

(That fear haunts me. Do I really believe that, deep down? Because sometimes it feels like I do — and does that mean I think I’m better than those who haven’t done an MA? My instinct is to say, “No, of course I don’t,” but is that because I know I shouldn’t feel that way? What unexamined elitism am I in denial about, that drives my own inferiority complex? Or is this another of those, “No, of course you’re fine, it’s only me I’m holding to impossible standards” situations?)

Fear or love? Once I asked myself this question about my PhD panic, I realised it was the kind of question I needed to be applying to the rest of my life. I’ve talked before about my impostor syndrome and frustration with a lack of progress in learning Irish, but were my language-learning efforts really being motivated by love of the language? Or was it fear, once again, of not being good enough, and of being an outsider?

The answer was obvious. Fear. Every time, it was fear. My anxiety about learning always increases whenever I see somebody else in my field criticised for their lack of modern Irish, or when somebody expects me to know more than I do, or when my lack of fluency is treated with surprise rather than understanding. And while that anxiety would temporarily motivate an increased effort at changing the situation, it never lasted. I’d have a week of working and then it would fizzle out, my hyper-awareness of all the ways I was failing to meet my goals outweighing any pride I might feel in the progress I was making.

The more I thought about it, and the more things I applied this question to, the more I realised how many of the things making me unhappy were because I’d allowed fear to motivate me, not love. Even silly things, like bookstagram — when I started posting elaborate book photos, it was because I loved books, but over time it became fear of losing my engagement, fear of being inadequate, fear of disappointing complete strangers on the internet. The effort began to outweigh the enjoyment, and I was constantly burned out. I started seeing books as props instead of stories, and where once I’d taken pride in creative photos and setups, I fixated instead on my dwindling likes, trying to figure out what the Instagram algorithm wanted of me, trying to work out what others were doing that I wasn’t.

And so I quit, a couple of years ago, and I don’t regret it at all, but there are other forms of social media where fear (especially fear of missing out) has kept me active on platforms that are otherwise making me miserable. It’s just been less obvious, so I haven’t noticed. Am I there because I love the communities I’m in and the connections I’m forming, or because I’m afraid to leave? Am I there in search of joy, or is it an anxious default setting, a pattern I don’t know how to break out of?

As I contemplate whether or not I have a future in academia, I’m being forced to realise that, all my life, learning has been driven by fear. And while allowing fear of doing badly in an exam to motivate me has historically resulted in good exam results, it hasn’t actually resulted in effective learning: I’m a master of learning exactly what I need to know for the time it takes me to sit the exam and then immediately forgetting it afterwards.

I was never fluent in French because I was learning in order to pass exams, get into university, and otherwise prove my academic worth according to arbitrary standards. And I’ll never be fluent in Irish unless I stop letting fear of inadequacy be my primary motivation.

If I did a PhD now it wouldn’t be because I actually want to. It’s because I’m afraid of not doing it. Afraid of what it means for my identity as a medievalist and an academic if I let my MA be the end of my formal studies. Afraid of feeling inadequate around my more academic friends. I can’t let that happen. Those brainweasels can’t be allowed to win. Because three years of fear-driven study will only result in misery. The reason I was happier during my MA than during my BA was because I was there for love of the subject, and I don’t want to ruin that by slipping straight back into the same patterns.

And while I do intend to intensify my efforts at learning modern Irish, I don’t want it to be because I’m afraid of never being good enough to belong in my field. I’m tired of the ticking clock. I’m tired of fear looking over my shoulder, whispering to me to run faster and faster and faster just to keep up.

I don’t know how to put the love back into language-learning, but I want to try. Maybe it’ll mean, each day, identifying which new word I liked best, and focusing on those small moments of delight. Maybe it’ll mean making a game of it, or finding new ways to apply what I learn to my hobbies. I don’t expect every second of the process to be fun, but I want to learn to love the process and recognise my progress, instead of being haunted by everything I don’t know. I want to stop constantly comparing myself to others, and start finding the joy in my own journey.

I want to apply this to other areas of life, beyond languages. I want to ask myself honestly: fear or love? And if it’s fear, can I stop? Can I put it aside? Or can I reframe it and come at it from a different angle?

I want to love more and fear less. I think, if I stop allowing fear of my own inadequacy to motivate me, it’ll be easier to look outwards. Easier to celebrate others’ success, because I’ll no longer be so afraid of being left behind. Easier to recognise when a closed door is inviting me to take another route instead of locking me in a cupboard. I want to go forwards with curiosity and hope and excitement, rather than because I’m desperately trying to outrun the negative emotions creeping up behind me.

I’m not gonna say that anxiety attack the other night was a good thing (it kept me up until 4am, that’s never great), but I do think I learned something from thinking about life in those terms. I sat there at two in the morning, writing out quotes and thoughts and questions in insular minuscule — I’ve found calligraphy a surprisingly good method for calming down, because it requires such steady, deliberate movements that you can’t rush — and by the time I stopped, I’d gone from spiralling about how to use the next few months “productively”, academically speaking, to realising I couldn’t let myself be chased down that path.

I guess I’m sharing this for three reasons. The first is that I think it’s always comforting, if you’re the kind of person who suffers from impostor syndrome and a sense of inadequacy, to know that you’re not alone. I can give off a totally unfounded sense of confidence in person simply because I’m talkative, but I’m actually a doubt-ridden gremlin, and I feel that’s always worth pointing out, because it might reassure somebody. The second is that people are often asking me about my plans for the future, and while I’ve already talked about my academic intentions, I still feel it’s worth reiterating that I currently have no idea whether or not I’m going to do a PhD and I am deliberately trying not to treat it as an expectation, because that’s how I get trapped in the hamster wheel of academic progress/obligation.

And the third reason is that I think a lot of us, actually, are driven by fear rather than love — especially in an increasingly hostile online world, and especially those of us with anxious creative brains. These days I spend a lot of time chatting to other debut authors, and I think those fearful brainweasels gain power from pre-publication stress. I should be doing this, I should be doing that, I’m running out of time, I’m behind, I’m going to fail. Not to mention all my academic friends trying to decide how much of themselves to give to their institutions, how much to sacrifice, what they’re willing to do. So I’m asking myself this question in public because I suspect there are others of youse who also need to be asking that question, and making choices about what to do about the answer.

Fear might be my default setting, but I’m picking love, and I’m going to keep picking it until eventually it sticks. And I don’t know what it’s going to look like or how I’m going to do it necessarily, but that’s part of the process.

I want to learn to love the process, and forget the ticking clock.

If you want to do your bit to combat my fear of failure, pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin or buying me a coffee will do wonders for my ego.

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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