We learners of the Irish language are a diverse bunch. Some of us live in Ireland; some have never yet visited the Emerald Isle. Some of us have clear Irish ancestry; others are called to this beautiful language for other reasons.
I think it would be fun, from time to time, to profile people throughout the world who are learning Irish. How did we get involved with the language? What paths are we following toward learning? What advice would we give to other learners?
Fabrizio, a native of Rome, Italy, agreed to be interviewed for our first learners’ profile.
To start, please tell me a little about yourself
My name is Fabrizio. I am 25 years old, and I was born and raised in Rome, Italy. While I finish university, I’m trying to start working as a volunteer teacher of Italian for adult immigrants, and I hope to become a professional language teacher in time.
I do not have any Irish ancestry that I am aware of; I live with my parents and my younger sister, and I very much enjoy cooking and baking cakes, in addition to growing plants on my small balcony. I am also an avid reader, very passionate about history and linguistics, and an amateur theatre actor.
How long have you been studying Irish?
Approximately 8 months as of April 2013.
What motivated you to learn Irish?
As a bit of a Scotophile, I‘ve had a long-running fascination with Scottish Gaelic, but my attempts at learning the language have been entirely disastrous throughout the years, and I never managed to grasp anything beyond the very basic words and expressions.
I knew Irish was a closely related language, but I’d never really thought about learning it until I stumbled on a textbook almost by chance – for some reason I can’t quite explain, I was hooked, and I decided to give it a try. Months later, I’m still here and going strong, so I must be doing something right this time!
What methods do you or have you used?
Most of my learning is done through textbooks, with the aid of a SRS (spaced repetition system) program to aid memorization of vocabulary and sentences. I try to use example audio as much as I can to help with pronunciation, and I also take some time to watch TG4 online when I can for listening practice.
What challenges have you faced?
One of the biggest hurdles I’m having to face as a textbook learner is the difficulty in finding reference grammars for Irish.
I find that reading explicit grammar rules helps my learning a lot, and most textbooks I’ve come across tend to sidestep the issue of grammar, expecting you to just “pick it up” as you go along, which doesn’t work terribly well for me. That means I often have to do a lot of tentative guesswork.
Do you have a teacher?
I live in a place where Irish speakers are nonexistent and interest in the Irish language in general is very low, so finding a local teacher is not really a viable option, and I cannot afford long-distance tutoring. As a consequence, all of my learning so far has had to be done through self-study.
Are you currently specializing in a particular dialect?
At the moment I’m focusing on the Caighdeán Oifigiúil “standard,” but I tend to prioritize the learning of Connacht dialectal features when needed – as an avid watcher of the Irish soap opera Ros na Rún, that’s the variety of spoken language I am most exposed to, so I find that’s the choice that makes the most sense to me.
Do you ever have the opportunity to converse with others using Irish? Perhaps via Skype?
I am unfortunately unaware of Irish language conversation groups in my area, but I would gladly try the Skype option if given the chance. I can’t say I have ever had a conversation in Irish so far, however, and my conversational skills are still extremely basic.
Are there aspects of the language you’ve found particularly difficult/challenging?
The grammar is most definitely the aspect I have to struggle with the most. It’s very complex, and very different from every other language I’ve been exposed to, so it can be extremely overwhelming, especially in the beginning. The issue of dialectal variation can also be quite tricky.
Have you visited Ireland?
I’ve never been to Ireland – in fact, funnily enough, I knew very little about the country when I started learning the Irish language.
As I study the language, however, I find myself gradually absorbing tidbits of information about Irish daily life, geography, history, and all sorts of interesting things that I would have never known otherwise, and I can definitely say I am now very much interested in the country as a whole, beyond the language.
I am definitely planning on doing an Irish course in the Gaeltacht as soon as I am able to afford it!
What advice would you give to someone who is learning the language?
My advice, as simplistic as it may sound, is to stick it out. Irish seems to have an extremely steep learning curve in the beginning, especially because of the unfamiliar spelling and complex grammar, and it can be very discouraging for the newbie learner.
As your knowledge of the internal structures of the language increases, however, at least in my experience, you often start finding yourself able to piece together even the meaning of unfamiliar forms and words, and the learning experience becomes more pleasant and rewarding.
Remember that language learning is not a run: it’s better to go slowly and surely than to overwhelm yourself and get burned out.
I think it’s also important to make the Irish language relevant to your life, instead of relegating it to a couple of hours a week in which you pick up your textbook.
It’s good to find something that you enjoy doing in the language, something that makes you actively want to understand more in order to increase your enjoyment of your favourite pastime – be it books, TV, online magazines, or conversations with people whose company you enjoy.
It’s a great source of motivation, and it feels amazing to actually perceive the Irish language as a part of your own real life, instead of something theoretical that only belongs in textbooks and dictionaries.
How does learning Irish compare to learning English?
Because Fabrizio’s native language is Italian, I asked him to share a little about how learning Irish compares with learning English:
The biggest difference is that English is, well…everywhere.
English has become the de facto international language, which means that learning materials are so vast and so varied that there’s something for any kind of learner. And English language media is so widespread and readily available that it’s wholly possible to immerse oneself entirely in the language.
In fact, for someone who uses the Internet as often as I do, it’s often quite possible to find oneself reading and writing more in English than in one’s own native language!
In general I think that a learner of Irish needs to put a lot more effort into their language -learning journey than a learner of English, for practical reasons that have nothing to do with the language itself – i.e., its grammar, phonology, etc.
Of course, there’s also the fact that, from the point of view of a Romance language speaker who learned both as foreign languages, Irish is a lot more complex than English in its morphology/syntax and a lot less readily understandable due to its lack of obvious Latinate cognates and loanwords.
But all in all, I am convinced that the biggest factor is the relative size of the languages – if Irish were as widespread and had as many learning aids available as English, the situation would be wholly different.
Thanks for sharing, Fabrizio!
Many of us have been asked “Why are you learning Irish?” I think it’s a good thing, from time to time, to share our experiences with the language. After all, we’re fellow travelers on this language-learning journey…agus Giorraíon beirt bóthar! *
* Two (or more!) shorten the road.