A Year of Learning Irish

“Connemara (3363960528)” by Michal Osmenda Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been just over a year since I started learning Irish and I thought I’d share my story. Sorry for being so egotistical but I think it may be interesting/helpful to others. Until last summer I was pretty normal for an Irish person of my generation. A less-than-enjoyable experience of Irish in the education system left me with quite a lot of random vocabulary but barely able to put a sentence together. Nevertheless I wanted to know how to speak it. I felt I should know how to. Aoife Crawford, the Irish Language Officer at Trinity College Dublin, put it very well:

I think the education system was very successful in impressing on people the idea that they should be fluent in Irish but not successful in actually making them fluent so people come out with this guilt.

Officially I had studied Irish for over a decade when I finished secondary school but a year ago I couldn’t hold a conversation. So far, so familiar. Now, however, I have conversations in Irish every week and I keep finding myself saying sentences I have never said before. Three things in particular caused this change.

  1. I started reading Benny Lewis’s blog Fluent in Three Months.
  2. My friend, who grew up in the Ráth Cairn Gaeltacht, offered to meet with me once a week to chat in Irish.
  3. Duolingo’s Irish course launched.

Benny convinced me that I had been making excuses and gave practical advice and encouragement to get started immediately. Meeting with my friend (let’s call him D.) meant I had to practise and gave a sense of consequence to my study. Whether or not I’d prepared affected how smoothly or haltingly our conversations would go. I knew I’d be meeting him on Thursday so I had better have something to say. Duolingo gave me a way to practise that was easy, manageable, and sort of addictive. I had a level to feel smug about and a streak to maintain (twice I got to 120 day streaks but lost them both).

Those early conversations with D. were awkward and embarrassing and exciting. I remember how the first one started.

D.: An bhfuil tú réidh?

Mise: Níl. Tá eagla orm.

D.: Ná bíodh eagla ort.

And it started. Some of the first phrases I learnt were:

Conas a déarfadh [X]? How would you say [X]?

Conas a litríonn tú [Y]? How do you spell [Y]?

Rinné mé dearmad ar [Z]. I’ve forgotten [Z].

Most of these early chats consisted of a lot of ‘Conas a déarfadh?’ on my part and quite a bit of explaining on his part but every time I could say a few new things. Some things took ages to stick but eventually they did. Ironically, I kept forgetting the verb cuimhnigh ‘to remember’, until one day we had this exchange:

Mise: Chuimhnigh mé focal tábhachtach! I remembered an important word!

D.: Sea, chuimhnigh tú cuimhnigh. Yeah, you remembered remember.

A few months in, one of our mutual friends asked how we were getting on. D. said ‘Oh God, it was like talking to a slow child at the beginning but now we can actually have a real conversation.’ Made me feel pretty proud.

The real highlight from the year was at the Christmas market on St Stephen’s Green. I was there with my girlfriend and ended up sharing a table with a woman and her daughter, who looked to be about 8. The woman was trying to make small talk with her in Irish and she was begrudgingly answering in English. After a minute I started chatting with the woman in Irish and the little girl’s eyes went HUGE. We only talked for a few minutes about basic things like the food and the decorations but it felt great to (1) dive into a conversation like that and (2) freak out a child. If you hear someone speaking Irish, say ‘Dia duit’. They are likely to appreciate it.

Some things I’ve learned:

1. Start speaking immediately

You will make a ton of mistakes. That’s good. It means you’re trying new things. Aiming for perfection is a good way to stay silent.

2. You get good at the things you practise

This might sound really obvious but it is true. If you want to learn how to speak a language you have to practise speaking it, out loud, with real people. If you want to read Beowulf in the original Old English (something I heartily recommend) then by all means just practise reading, but if you want to communicate then open your mouth and try not to worry about the consequences.

3. The more often you practise the sooner you’ll get better

If you want to get good at a language fairly quickly, you have to practise every day. Yes, every day. It doesn’t have to be for long. Twenty minutes here or there. But twenty minutes a day is more effective than two hours once a week. If you can’t practise every day that’s ok, but things will take longer to sink into your long term memory.

4. Don’t compare yourself to other people

It doesn’t matter if other people speak Irish better than you. Or have learned more in a shorter space of time. The only thing that matters is whether you have more Irish today than you did yesterday.

5. Talk to a native speaker if at all possible

Even when I speak in Irish, often I’m still thinking in English about what I want to say. You see this in learners all the time. It’s why our word-order is often so screwy. This is normal for a learner but it’s something we should try to get past or we’ll sound stupid to native speakers and our speech won’t flow naturally. Repeatedly I’ve asked D. how he’d translate a sentence into Irish and he has said ‘You just wouldn’t say that in Irish’. Irish has a different subconscious, as it were. For example, it’s more noun-centred than English, as you’ll notice when you get to verbal nouns.

6. Make your own immersion

(Image: Tuairisc.ie)

(Image: Tuairisc.ie)

Even if you live in rural Montana and don’t have easy access to Gaeilgeoirí, there are things you can do. I’ve switched Facebook and Gmail to Irish. I follow Tuairisc.ie, TG4, Conradh na Gaeilge, an Siopa Leabhar, Méimeanna na Gaeilge, Alex Hijmans, Féilire Gaeilge, NÓS, duchas.ie and some others. Every morning their tweets give me something short to translate and keep my feed from being English only.

7. Learn the vocabulary that’s relevant to you

D. and I talk about books a lot (he’s a writer and I teach English literature). This meant I made an effort to learn a lot of vocabulary that I would be using but wouldn’t have found in most textbooks. e.g. focleolaíocht ‘philology’, sanasaíocht ‘etymology’, fantasy ‘fantasaíocht’, ficsean eolaíochta ‘science fiction’ etc. I use these words a lot but haven’t come across them in any coursebook. Before every comhrá I make a vocab list of the things I’d like to talk about and try to learn those words.

8. I need grammar; you might too

(Image: Cló Iar-Chonnacht)

I love Duolingo, but I need more emphasis on grammar than it offers. When the course first launched the verbal noun section had no grammar notes. I kept doing the lessons and crashing out after mistake upon mistake. Nobody had explained what the rules were! (Thankfully, this has been fixed since) Don’t get me wrong. It’s difficult to explain complicated grammar points in a clear and efficient way. And it seems that most people have, through their very limited exposure to grammar in UK, US or Irish schools, picked up the idea that grammar is hard, boring and not really important. It doesn’t need to be so.

But grammar works best in context. When I was learning Old Norse my lecturer tried to teach us sound changes before we had seen much of the language. Of course we couldn’t keep the sound changes straight. We hadn’t seen them in action. I find it’s best to start learning phrases and getting used to speaking. Then work on the grammar and you may find two things happen: (1) You go ‘Oh that’s why that happens! Cool.’ and (2) You start knowing how to put together sentences you’ve never said before. Grammar is great for going from beginner to intermediate, and you will need to learn it to get to that intermediate stage.

When I first bought Nollaig Mac Congáil’s Irish Grammar Book it sat on my shelf and looked scary, now that I’ve had more exposure to the language I find it to be extremely helpful.

9. There isn’t one perfect learning resource or method

Everyone learns differently. I know one person who honestly does love learning off verb paradigms. You may not and that’s ok. Find what works for you.

(Image: Yale University Press)

For example: I started learning Irish with Mícheál Ó Siadhail’s Learning Irish and didn’t get very far. I’ve taught Old English – I’m not frightened by the International Phonetic Alphabet – but Ó Siadhail was a bit intimidating even for me. Here’s a table of vocab, several new grammatical points and now let’s drill, drill, drill. This method can work for more advanced, and committed learners, but I wouldn’t start there. Now that I have a better grasp of Irish I’m using Ó Siadhail again and it’s working much better for me.

You might be an aural learner – listen to the audio on Colloquial Irish, Teach Yourself Irish or Buntús Cainte.

If you’re a visual learner make your own posters with the things you want to learn. Maybe do something creative with Nualeargas’ Acme Declension Guesser

Look for an Irish translation of a book you love in English. There is a growing selection: An HobadAn Leon, an Bandraoi agus an Prios ÉadaighEachtraí Eilíse i dTír na nIontas; Cás aduain an Dr Jekyll agus Mhr HydeCuairt na Cruinne in Ochtó LáCú na mBaskervilleCogadh na Reann; Asterix na nGallachTodóga na bhFarónna; Oileán an Órchisteagus araile

Roinnt de mo leabhair

Roinnt de mo leabhair

I still use Duolingo every day but I need to vary it with others methods or I’ll get bored. For example, I’ve started writing short Vicipéid entries (there are far too few pages, especially about nerdy things, on the Irish language Wikipedia) and getting them corrected by D. before posting them. I get to practise producing more complicated Irish sentences and feel pretty good about increasing the amount of Irish material online.

Plenty of people say they would like to speak a language. Often what they mean is they would like the skills and knowledge downloaded into their heads without any work on their part. If you want to speak a language, start learning it and using it. It’ll give you much better results than wanting to know it. 

Labhair Gaeilge agus lean ar aghaidh.


One thought on “A Year of Learning Irish

  1. Very informative and should be read and implemented by every learner. One additional piece of advice I would offer to a learner is to avoid some of the forums and the negativity of some of the would-be experts and ”purists”. Cloíghigí leis agus lean leis an chaint agus beidh an lá linn


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