My son started school the other week and he’s bring home some unusual words and phrases, seasoning his familiar speech with brògan, dearg, buidhe, uaine, suidh sìos, madainn mhath, tha mi duilich, gabh mo leisgeull, ceart ma-thà. What is going on?
He has, of course, begun his immersion in Gaelic Medium Education, in his case at the Glasgow Gaelic School. We were told that our children would pick up the language very quickly, even if they hadn’t been exposed to it before. The challenge was always going to be for the parents who hadn’t. And they were right, although I hadn’t reckoned on it becoming manifest so soon.
My parents are English, although they did holiday frequently in the Highlands and Islands. I’m told I was named for Sgùrr Alasdair, the highest peak on the Isle of Skye, and the first trip I made that I faintly remember was in a van that famously broke down in Beauly in the early hours of a Sunday morning on what was then a day and half’s drive from Lancashire to Assynt.
My father’s bookshelves amply testify to an interest in Scottish history and topography. He also tried to learn Gaelic, subscribing to the newspaper Sruth for a while, and even took his primitive portable tape recorder (one that looked like this) along when he was invited to spend the evening with Mr McLeod, who lived a few miles down the road from the cottage we used to rent near Achmelvich, delighted to capture a three-way conversation between him, his wife and – unexpectedly dropping in – the postman.
I was introduced to several languages at school – Latin (all but forgotten now), German (surviving at elementary phrase-book level) and French, which I was much more determined to master when I fell in love with Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I’ve continued to read French to the point at which I can get through a novel in less than twice the time it takes to read one in English, though my conversational skills are fairly limited. I can understand instructions and ask for what I want, but I’d be struggling to engage in interesting chat.
For a long time Gaelic didn’t interest me beyond a mild fascination with the way English versions of Gaelic placenames often appeared to be attempts to find English morphemes that vaguely approximated to the Gaelic pronunciation rather than translations. Thus Àisir Mòr became Oldshoremore. But when I started working at the Scottish Music Information Centre in the early 1990s, I found myself having to read out Gaelic titles or names over the phone, and, to avoid embarrasment, began to teach myself the language following a course devised by An Comunn Gàidhealach.
The course was one of my dad’s, consisting of a boxed set of ten LPs with a booklet. According to the date on the records, it was already ancient, but – if the even older language materials passed on to me were any guide – it seemed to differ significantly from the reprints of text books from the turn of the last century: dry, systematic, technical, lacking illustrations, and introducing a vocabulary suggestive of a rural frontier life (man, woman, fire, smoke, wood, saw, cave, hill, cairn, calf, eagle, rat, berry) that has remained locked in time.
In the 1960s, though, change was in the air, and from the first lesson, we are invited into a defiantly suburban home, with a three-piece suite, a standard lamp, a cake stand, a foot-stool, and – most dramatically of all – a telebhisean.
My enthusiasm did not last. Four lessons in as many months and I gave in. Then nearly twenty years later, with a child at an age where decisions had to be made, his mother suggested we put in a placement request for the Gaelic School. I wasn’t keen at first – remembering my eternal disappointment when my own parents shovelled me off to a posh grammar in a neighbouring town rather than the local one where most of my friends went. But I slowly came round to the idea. I attended some evening classes, and though I missed too many of them, I eventually began teaching myself the language again in earnest.
During the summer I found myself advancing on two fronts. On the one hand, there was Gaelic in Twelve Weeks and its accompanying CDs, which I transferred to my smartphone, and I have studiously applied myself to the exercises, refusing to move on to the next lesson until I felt I had truly mastered the previous. On the other, there was a DVD set of the first series of Speaking Our Language, the TV programme that first aired in the late 1990s and the books that went with it, which I watch with Jack several evenings a week.
With the book, I listen to the CDs and follow in the text. Then I try to write down what is being said, without referring to the book. And then I try and translate from Gaelic from the English in the text. In between times, when I’m out and about, I listen to the recordings as many times as it takes for the individual words and phrases to take shape and be recognizable, while repeating them to myself to improve my pronunciation. Only when I feel I can do all this without thinking too much and not making many mistakes do I allow myself to move on to the next lesson. After about four months, I’m about ready to tackle lesson four. So much for twelve weeks.
The television programmes are a gentler way in. We’re three-quarters through the first series on our second run. Programmes are organised around topics (greetings, goodbyes, telling the time, travelling, instructions and orders, and so on) and you learn a series of useful phrases (often in dialogue form) without being required to systematically learn all the forms of a pronoun or preposition or tackle the rules governing lenition. Jack loves watching these programmes, especially the soap opera Aig an Taigh embedded within them. With the help of the books, I jot down some of the key points to help me remember them, and some of them stick, though by the second half of the series, a lot of them just vanish as soon as the credits roll. I think we’ll have to watch some of them yet again, before we get Series Two.
When I think of how long it took me to absorb enough French for me to make a decent stab at writing something like this post in that language – and even now, I’d have to consult a dictionary at least once a sentence – the task ahead is daunting. But each time I feel ready for something new – conjugating verbs, the names of the seasons, another round of prepositional pronouns – a shiver of achievement makes it all worthwhile. One day I might even talk to a stranger.