As I was getting gas a few days ago, a fellow pulled up behind me and asked about the various Irish words on my car (with three window stickers and a license plate in Irish, there’s plenty to ask about!)
I told him what each meant, then, at his request, read each one aloud. He just shook his head and asked “how in the heck do you get THOSE sounds from THOSE letters?”
Fear of spelling
When I ask a group of new students what concerns them the most about learning Irish, the first answer is almost always “the spelling.”
Upon further questioning, it usually turns out that it isn’t the spelling per se that worries them, but rather how to pronounce letter combinations that seem, at first glance, to be unpronounceable.
Inevitably, someone eventually says “it would be easier if they’d just spell it the way it sounds!” My answer to that is “They do. They spell it the way it sounds in Irish.”
Different language, different phonics
It really seems to come as a shock to many English speakers that letters don’t always work the same way from language to language.
That’s surprising, really, when you consider just how inconsistent English spelling and pronunciation are.
For example, why are the vowel sounds different in “couch,” “cough,” and “enough”? Why does “through” rhyme with “threw,” when “tough” is pronounced “tuff”?
For that matter, why do we pronounce the second word in that previous sentence (does)”duz” in that context when, if we were talking about female deer, we’d pronounce it “doze”?
(Kind of makes you take pity on people who have to learn English as a second language, doesn’t it?)
Regularity is the key
The thing that makes Irish pronunciation a lot less daunting than most beginners anticipate is that it’s a highly regular language. Once you’ve “cracked the code,” so to speak, you’ve essentially got it.
There are exceptions, of course. All languages have them. But the exceptions are usually common words that you pick up quickly, or dialect variations that you don’t need to worry about as a beginner.
So how do you crack the code?
Step 1: Avoid written phonetic renderings
The first and most important step to learning correct Irish pronunciation is not to depend too heavily on written phonetic renderings. There are several reasons for this:
- Written phonics can only give you an approximation. Irish has sounds that English doesn’t have (and vice versa).
- Not all English speakers render sounds the same way. If you’re from New Jersey and you’re looking at a phonetic rendering by someone from Dublin you’re unlikely to get the sounds just right.
- Written phonics can become a crutch. I know people who struggled for years with Irish pronunciation because they relied too heavily on written phonics in the beginning.
Step 2: Get a program that includes both audio and print
If you’re unable to work with a teacher, you will want a learning program that includes both print and audio…particularly audio recorded by native speakers.
(If you’re a Bitesize subscriber, of course, you already have this! If you’re not a Bitesize subscriber, now might be a good time to consider trying our free, no-obligation, mini-course!)
There’s a place, as you progress, for audio-only or print-only programs, but until you’re comfortable with pronunciation, you really do need to both see the words and hear them pronounced.
Step 3: Don’t just practice; practice well
Set aside a little time every day to practice pronunciation. It’s also a good idea to vary how you practice, both to train your eyes and ears (they learn better with variety) and to keep from getting bored.
How to practice pronunciation
Look, listen, look, repeat
When you start, the most important thing to practice is seeing the Irish word or phrase as you listen to it being pronounced by a native speaker.
Important! Don’t look at a written phonetic rendering while you’re doing this! Your brain needs to make the connection between the way the words look and the way they sound.
(If your program has written phonics, you can cover them with your hand or a bit of paper while you’re doing this).
Next, practice saying the word or phrase while looking at it. This part is harder, but it’s important.
You need to connect the way the words look not only with how they sound, but with how they feel when you say them.
As you progress, or for variation, here are some other good methods of pronunciation practice:
Sing it out!
Music is a great mnemonic aid (as anyone who has ever hummed the alphabet song while looking for something in a filing cabinet — most likely all of us — can attest!)
One way to use music to help you practice pronunciation is to get a CD of Irish singing and sing along as you follow the written song.
Write it down
A fun exercise I do with adult students is have them try to write English using Irish phonics. For example:
Aigh lubh raightinn Ínglis iúsinn Aighris fánoics. Iots fonn…laidhc a cód! (I love writing English using Irish phonics. It’s fun…like a code!)
As you get better at pronunciation, it’s a good idea to spend time each day reading aloud. Start simple: Maybe a children’s poem or nursery rhyme, or a practice conversation from your learning program.
Are you ready to start practicing your Irish pronunciation right now?
If so, you might want to check out our Pronunciation Cheat Sheets for Irish Gaelic PDF, a four-step method for working out the pronunciation of any Irish word, available for immediate download!
Practice means progress!
With just a little practice every day, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly Irish pronunciation becomes second nature!
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