Welcome to another installment of our Irish Learner Profiles series! In publishing these profiles, we hope to showcase the diversity of the international Irish learning community.
Earlier this month, we introduced you to Marina, an Irish learner who lives in Russia. Now we’re going visit a country that’s a little bit closer to Ireland, to a place where another Celtic language — one closely related to Welsh and Cornish — is spoken.
Many thanks to Loig for agreeing to participate in this interview! Loig has been learning Irish for quite a bit longer than our previous interviewees, and also speaks and teaches Breton, so he has some good insight to offer newer learners.
To start, please tell me a little about yourself
How long have you been studying Irish?
Since I was 16 – 18 years ago.
What motivated you to learn Irish?
When I was 16, I began to be interested in Celtic things, especially myths and archaeology. Since I’ve always loved languages, I thought it would be nice to learn one or several Celtic languages too.
My grandmother and her family are from Brittany so I wanted to learn Breton. At the same time, I would listen to CDs of Irish music (Clannad, Altan, Planxty, etc.) and I fell in love with Irish because of its mysterious and enchanting spelling and sounds.
What methods do you or have you used? Have you ever had a teacher?
At that time, the internet wasn’t as easily available as it is now; we had no internet connection at home, nor in my school, so I started learning with books and CDs.
I bought Learning Irish by M. Ó Siadhail, and Foclóir Póca. A while later I bought New Irish Grammar too. I learned pronunciation by listening to Clannad and Altan songs and looking at the lyrics at the same time, and learning these songs by heart.
I learned a lot by translating by myself, from English or French to Irish, all the texts and sentences I found interesting: poetry, songs, etc. Nobody could help me by correcting my translations then, but I did my best, and when you look 10 times for the same word in your dictionary or for the same rule in your grammar book, finally you remember it!
Three years later I went to the university to study Breton and I attended Irish classes too. At that time I had reached an intermediate level in Irish, so the beginners classes I attended were too easy, but I learned some grammar things I didn’t know, as well as vocabulary.
My teacher noticed I was very interested in the language and loaned me books and CDs. He also organized a one-week travel to Ulster for all his students, so I went to Ireland for the first time in my life. We went to the Belfast Cultúrlann [Cultural Center], to Gaoth Dobhair and to Rann na Feirste.
A YEAR IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Two years later I spent a year in Northern Ireland, with the Erasmus program, in order to improve my Irish and become completely fluent.
It was in Coleraine University, Co. Derry; we had classes every day, and we also had a two-week course in the Donegal Gaeltacht (Gort a’ Choirce). I would also often go to Gaoth Dobhair with a friend at the weekend.
Going back to the methods I used, it’s a pity there’s no learning book to learn Donegal Irish as it is spoken. All the books and stuff that exist so far teach a mixture of Standard Irish and Donegal Irish.
Those who want to speak Donegal Irish have to learn from those books and then to try to unlearn the standard stuff and to learn what people really say by using what they find: radio programs, An Teanga Bheo, the linguistic atlases and a few other things, or going to the Donegal Gaeltacht to listen to people.
Those who want to learn Connemara Irish have Ó Siadhail’s Learning Irish, those who are interested in Munster Irish have the old Teach Yourself Irish, but those who want to learn Donegal Irish have no handbook at all. It’s a pity, because many people are interested in that dialect.
Are you currently specializing in a particular dialect? Why, or why not?
The dialect I wanted to learn was that of Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal, because it’s the first dialect I heard – in the songs of Altan and Clannad – and also because when I heard the other dialects, they didn’t sound as nice to me.
Northern Donegal dialects are less guttural than the other dialects because the sound of the broad ch is replaced by an h sound everywhere except at the beginning of (most) words, and before t it’s pronounced like a devoiced r. So that harsh ch sound is less common than in Connacht or Munster Irish.
Moreover, my first teacher was from Ulster and we spent one week in Ulster, especially in Gaoth Dobhair, and I really loved that place.
What about the language have you found particularly challenging?
I think the use of the copula — is — and especially the word order after it isn’t always clear in the learning books. I only started to really master that thanks to my grammar teacher in Coleraine.
I know spelling and pronunciation are very hard for most speakers, but I don’t remember having had much difficulty with them since I learned them naturally by listening to songs, so I learned them without noticing.
I remember though it took time to me to understand the sound of initial broad gh/dh*; books sometimes explain it but you can’t pronounce it when you don’t hear it very clearly.
I learned that sound by listening to unaccompanied Scottish Gaelic songs. Most verbal nouns end with a broad dh in Scottish Gaelic, so you hear that sound all the time, so that’s the way I learnt how to pronounce it.
* Editor’s note: for those who have just started with Irish, or who are thinking about learning it: “broad” consonants are those that have the vowels a, o, or u on either side of them. Consonants are called “slender,” and have a different sound, if they’re surrounded by the vowels i or e. You can read more about this here.
What advice would you offer to other learners of Irish?
Listen to Gaeltacht speakers and try to speak like them. Use your Irish as much as you can without fearing to make mistakes – you will, but you’ll correct them with time. If you don’t use your Irish though, you’ll never be fluent, so it’s better to speak with mistakes first and correct them gradually.
Thank you for sharing your experience and advice, Loig!
For our readers: Do you find these profiles useful or interesting? Can you think of any additional questions you’d like asked in subsequent interviews? Would you be interested in being interviewed yourself, or do you know of someone we should ask? Let us know below, or contact Audrey at [email protected]