Community Advice: Irish Language Learning Tactics

We’re always trying to help the Bitesize Irish community members with good feedback, advice and tactics to use when learning the Irish language. Often than not, that advice comes from the community itself.

If you want to discover some solid tactics of learning the Irish language, please read the following interview. Val is a Bitesize Irish community member from California, USA.

Fueled by his Scottish-Irish heritage he started learning the language and shares his experience with us, in this blog post. Also check the final of his interview for some really interesting pictures!

Bitesize: Where abouts in the world do you live?

Val: I live in an area we locals call the “East Bay” in California, USA. This is a region near, east, and inland from, San Francisco. However “near” in the US might be farther than what other people think. It’s about 30 miles / 48 kilometers to that city. Other locations you might have heard of, which are within about an hour and a half by road, are “Silicon Valley” and the Napa Valley wine growing region. The physical geography of the area includes a ridge of hills about 1,200 feet (400 m) high between the bay and the valley where I live, which can block the flow of cool air and fog coming inland from the ocean.

There can be a wide range of weather over that 30-mile span. In the summer, it might be 39 degrees C where I live, and at the same moment on the coast in San Francisco, it is 18 degrees. I also live near the foot of a “lonely mountain” which stands by itself, separate from the other ranges: Mount Diablo, with a height of 3,849 feet (1,179 m).

Bitesize: What brought you to wanting to learn the Irish language?

Val: My first answer to that question is “Is amadán mé”. I feel I must be a fool for starting to learn a new language at nearly 60 years old!

But more seriously – I have visited Ireland three times so far on holiday, and I very much like what I have seen of the country, culture, history, and the people I have met. I think learning the language will help me better understand the culture, both historically and current-day. It is important for me to know where words came from, and what is the literal meaning of a word or phrase along side of how it is used today. Also, I enjoy Trad music, especially the songs and ballads. I would like to sing in Irish, but I think it is important to truly understand the lyrics rather than merely parroting the sounds like I have heard some Americans do.

I also try occasionally to take up some completely new project simply to see what I learn in the process. While I am not as devoted to learning as Faust, I do hope to keep finding new knowledge as I go through life.

Bitesize: Do you have Irish ancestry? If so, can you tell us a little more about it

Val: Like most Americans, my cultural heritage is very mixed and I have not done much detailed genealogical research. However I know my father’s mother’s family name was McCrary and I’m told that family was “Scots-Irish”.

I have seen some references that many people named McCrary came from Co. Tyrone. Unfortunately, tracing that branch of my ancestry leads into the backwoods of the Ozark mountains in Arkansas – yes, part of my family were “hillbillies” – and it will require a bit more research to connect the line all the way back to Ireland.

Bitesize: How do you use Bitesize Irish?

Val: Most days on my lunch break at work I will plug in my earbuds and work through a lesson or two using my phone. I will also occasionally come back to some lessons to review. I actually first discovered Bitesize Irish through the podcast, and I’m happy to find the Blog to read and watch/listen to.

Bitesize: What advice would you have for a total beginner of Irish Gaelic?

Val:  First, try to have fun. For many people, this is not something you MUST do, but something you WANT to do.

Next, have realistic expectations and don’t be hard on yourself if your progress is not as rapid as you might like. Unless you have a deadline to apply for a job that requires a level of fluency, it will probably not be a catastrophe if you take a few extra months or years to become comfortable with the language.

Fortunately for those of us who might visit Ireland, almost everyone who speaks Irish also speaks English so you’ll be able to communicate even in a Gaeltacht region. If you have to know where the toilet is and can’t remember “Ca bhfuil an leithreas?”, you can ask in English before disaster strikes! (If you do not speak English, you probably are not reading this note so my comment is not useful to you.) Learn as best you can, but remember it’s not the end of the world if you learn a bit more slowly.

Measure your progress against a baby. How well can a child speak his/her native language after 1 year? After 2 years? Remember that is a person who is surrounded by that language all the time, and has adults constantly working to teach the child. Trying to learn by studying just a few minutes a day, or even a longer class a few times a week, is going to be a much slower process than someone who is completely immersed in the language.

Take time to listen to the language outside of lessons, the way it’s spoken in everyday life. RTE’s Raidió na Gaeltachta is available on-line, and you can listen to short news stories or interviews at your convenience. You may only catch a word or two out of every hundred, but you’ll get the sound of the language in your ears. It’s a good reminder that this is a living language rather than merely a subject to be studied. You’ll hear some different dialects as well. Also, some of the people being interviewed struggle a bit with Irish – it can be encouraging to know that you don’t have to be perfect before you say something in public.

Listen to recordings of people singing in Irish. Fortunately, Irish language music has become quite popular in recent years thanks to Riverdance, Celtic Woman, and the like. You’ll hear the flow, the rhythm, the poetry of the language more than you will from just hearing conversation. Do be careful, though – some performers may mix Irish, Scots, and other Gaelic languages on one recording. Just because something is labeled “Celtic” does not automatically mean “Irish”. And not all Irish singers are Irish speakers, so these might not be the best reference for pronunciation. (There is also room to debate whether some of the current fad of “Celtic” music has any connection to any historically “Celtic” cultures. But that argument is best saved for another time over a few pints in the pub.)

Get a dictionary and/or bookmark on-line translation resources on your computer and your mobile device, so you can translate words or whole sentences whenever you need. (Caution: “Google Translate” is not always the best reference!)

On your phone or computer keyboard, learn how to easily insert the fada mark. Maybe that goes without saying, but for a while I was cut-and-pasting the special characters until I memorized the keyboard shortcut. (I’m a slow learner).

Think of various phrases or sentences you might want to say in conversation, find the correct translation, and write them down somewhere handy. I keep them in the “notepad” application on my phone. The exercise of finding the correct words & writing them helps to remember, and it also gives you something to easily check if you forget exactly how to say or spell something such as “Is amadán mé”.

Talk to yourself. Hold conversations in your head, and – when you are alone – speak out loud. It is not a sign of insanity – it is studying! In your practice conversations you will come upon things that you don’t know how to say in Irish – that’s when it is good to be able to look up a word or a phrase.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Lyndall Wann Photo Gallery

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