Blog post written by Audrey Nickel
“Isn’t that language hard to learn? How do you even begin to pronounce it?”
“Irish is just too difficult.”
“My dad took Irish in school, and he told me it’s really hard to learn.”
The language people love to fear
It’s a refrain Irish speakers, learners, and teachers hear over and over again. People are curious about Irish — perhaps even want to learn it on some level — but they’re convinced it’s just too difficult for ordinary people to learn.
Some of them took Irish in school and came away loathing and fearing it. Some tried to teach themselves a bit, but quickly became overwhelmed and gave up. Still others, intimidated by the appearance of the language, are afraid to even try.
Just how difficult is it, anyway?
Given that “difficulty” is a very relative concept (something that comes easily to me might be difficult for you, and vice versa), is Irish really all THAT more difficult to learn than other languages? Let’s look at a few advantages it has over other languages you might consider studying:
- It uses an alphabet that you’re already familiar with (assuming you’re reading this post in English and haven’t plugged it into a on-line translator for Arabic or Chinese).
- It has a very regular phonetic system. It may look strange at first, but once you’ve learned the rules and had a bit of practice with it, it’s much easier than a lot of languages in that regard.
- It has very regular grammar rules, unlike English, for which it seems every rule has multiple exceptions.
Granted that Irish has some fairly complicated grammar rules compared to many languages, it’s very far from being unlearnable. So why is it that some people seem to regard it as insurmountably difficult?
So, why all the angst?
Irish seems to have more than its fair share of people who think of it as an especially difficult language. The reasons for this are varied, and tend to differ between people in Ireland and people outside of Ireland.
For people who live in Ireland, a lot of the challenges seem to stem from how Irish has traditionally been taught (for more on this, you may want to read our post “Why do the Irish Speak English?“).
For much of the 20th century, classroom emphasis was on memorization of grammar rules and works of literature, with very little emphasis on Irish as a spoken, living, language. This is an extremely difficult, tedious, and frustrating way to learn any language, and it’s not surprising that many left school with a very low opinion of the subject.
This approach is changing, fortunately, though there is still a lot of rote memorization required.
Another issue that has frustrated people studying the language in school is one of dialect.
As Bitesize subscribers will know, we tell learners not to get too worried about the fact that there are multiple dialects of Irish…and for adult learners, that’s generally pretty sound advice.
For children learning the language at school, however, especially if they’re not in a full-immersion environment, being confronted (as some have) with Irish teachers from different regions year after year can be really confusing.
I once had a conversation about Irish language instruction in schools with a woman who had moved her young family from Ireland to California. She expressed a great deal of frustration over the dialect question:
“How are they supposed to learn when one year they have a teacher from Kerry who tells them to pronounce things one way, and the next year they have a teacher from Galway telling them something different? They were so confused all the time!”
Small wonder that many Irish people have decided that Irish is just impossibly difficult, especially if they’ve had success at learning other languages!
Outside of Ireland
Outside of Ireland, concerns about the relative difficulty of the Irish language tend to center mainly around its spelling and the resulting pronunciation.
Unfamiliar consonant combinations, such as bhF or mB, seem to make people really worried. Others express concern about how long some words appear to be (a function of Irish spelling rules, which require the same type of vowel on either side of a consonant. Bitesize subscribers can explore this rule in Lesson: Spelling Rule).
Another thing that concerns prospective learners is that the grammar differences between Irish and English can seem, initially, to be rather imposing…especially if they get hit from the start with unfamiliar grammatical terminology such as “prepositional pronoun” or “verbal noun” (Don’t worry! they’re not as scary as they sound!).
Granted that such differences exist between most languages, Irish is just different enough from English, or from such commonly studied languages as French or Spanish, that people who are just starting out with it can get a little bit intimidated.
This is especially true with people who have never studied a foreign language. Such people are often surprised at just how differently different languages express the same concepts (and I’ve met more than a few people who thought that language learning was simply a matter of memorizing new words and plugging them into English syntax!).
So how difficult is it, really?
Of course, learning any language is challenging. You’re not just learning a new way of communicating, you’re training your brain to think in new ways. This is true whether you’re learning Irish, French, or even Pig Latin!
As the old saying goes, “comparisons are odious.” That said, if pinned down to it, I’d say that Irish is a little more difficult for English speakers to learn than French or Spanish, a good bit easier than Latin, and one whole heck of a lot easier than Mandarin Chinese.
Really, the biggest barrier to learning Irish, or any other language, is not the complexity of the language, but rather the will of the learner.
If you can get over the idea that it’s too difficult for you, you can make a start. And, as we say in Irish: Tús maith, leath na hoibre (“A good start, half the work”).
In your Irish studies, you’ll have times when it seems easy, with fluency just around the corner, and times when it seems impossible, and you’re rather be doing just about anything else (read more about these ups and downs in Language Journeys and How to Keep Going).
Bottom line? Yes, it’s difficult. Learning any new language is. But it’s doable. And it’s worth it.
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