The old Chinese proverb supposedly says:
The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
We have a lovely seanfhocal /shan-UK-uhl/ (old saying) in Irish Gaelic that says:
Tús maith leath na hoibre.
/Toos mah lyah nah HIB-reh./
It means that “A good start is half the work”. It’s valuable wisdom that tells us that getting off to a good start is essential to a journey, even a very long journey.
But that wisdom in itself doesn’t cover how to continue on a thousand-mile journey. Taking the Chinese saying literally, you’ve packed your bags, you’ve planned your route, but 100 miles into the journey it still feels like there’s a long journey ahead of you.
We got this email from Paul (I’m not identifying him by surname, so I hope he won’t mind the quote):
I spoke with you before but just wanted some advice re learning the As Gaeilge. My knowledge is very basic as its 30 + years since I did my Leaving Cert [end of highschool exams].
I have got the books out of the Library thing, looked at the internet etc but just need some sort of plan.
I have been going to an Irish group that meets every Wed night. were not pressurised to talk and its very comfortable but I cannot get involved as my pigeon Irish makes conversations limited. Some nights I cannot wait for the hour to pass.
I don’t want to commit to signing up for one of you the Bitesize options and unsubscribe a month or two later. I appreciate I have to put in the work, their is no silver bullet, bot having listened to many of the podcasts I believe I can achieve a level of speaking and understanding eventually. […] So there we are any guidance would be great.
I can feel Paul’s frustration, and he says he needs a plan. I appreciate his optimism: he still correctly feels that there’s a way to learn to speak at least some basic Irish language.
My suggestion would be to adopt a principled approach to learning to speak Irish Gaelic, and a plan will fall into place.
What I have learned from successful language learners (who speak the language) is that they employ the skill of optimistically appreciating what they have already learned, rather than primarily saying how hard the journey ahead of them is.
This comes down to first accepting your own weaknesses in the face of learning a language.
Learning a language is feckin’ hard. It takes a long time. Trust me, I’ve been slowly learning Slovenian (Sasa‘s native language) for about a decade now. My understanding of basic conversation is quite good, but I cannot decipher a full-speed conversation, and expressing myself with even basic concepts is hard.
Accept that the entire language is bigger than you can currently take it. Making the language internal to who you are (to embrace your Irish heritage) will happen slowly over time.
For any given moment, you won’t have light-bulb moments that suddenly allow you to give a restaurant review for that lovely Guinness you just had with mashed potato mixed in with black pudding, with a large battered fish on top, and saying all that in Irish Gaelic.
You’ll begin to recognize words. You’ll pick up phrases – phrases that you’ll later be able to recall in the right context. You’ll see patterns for how spelling, pronunciation, and sentences come together to form this special language of the Gaels.
You’ll see those patterns only by seeing them over and over again, pulling together the strands to decipher the mystery. And in any given moment, you’ll probably be only grasping one of those strings.
In other words, you’ll only be taking one Bite at a time, mixing together what little things you’ve already learned to help you pick up a new word or concept.
How does this help you or Paul learn to speak Irish Gaelic?
Appreciate the little bit of Irish Gaelic you already speak (if you don’t have any, take our free email course Irish for Beginners). Say “Dia dhuit” to your dog, say a simple “Slán” to your friend as you’re parting ways.
Know that you can’t learn everything at once. Accept that you only know two phrases, and your next Bite will be to learn one more single phrase.
Your next step should be to start something, as Dineen Grow described on our podcast.
It’s a journey, but it’s a worth-while journey. You’ll be making that deep connection with your Irish heritage.