Monday, 26 September 2016

How long DOES it take to learn Gaelic?

So, how long *does* it take to learn Gaelic?

Three years.

Next question?

OK, maybe I had better expand on that a little bit.

First off, let's rephrase the question:

'How long does it take the average person of average ability with a fairly busy life to learn Gaelic to a conversational level?'

I reckon, in my experience as a very average learner, it takes between two and a half and three years. Roughly.

If you've cast half an eye over this blog before, you'll know I am a massive fan of the BBC Radio nan Gàidheal Lerners' programme 'Beag air Bheag' with Iain Urchardan.  Every week Iain introduces 'Neach-ionnsachaidh na seachdain', Learner of the Week, and these people each have a very different story to tell.

I remember in an early series, a very busy housewife who was massively commited to bringing up her family and to her church was barely able to string a sentence together after two years of learning. However, she still admirably put herself forward for an interview, and it was done in a way that she could cope with. On the other side of the coin, in the most recent series (Series 4) you had two different dudes (Martin B and Carmine) who had pretty much reached fluency after learning for barely a year. All these people serve to inspire, be it to show that even when you barely have a second to yourself you can pick up a little bit here and there, or that if you have the time and the inclination you can immerse yourself and become fluent in a comparatively short time.

These examples are, in my view, extreme. There is no doubt in my mind that Martin B and Carmine are very intelligent and focussed men. Most of us, me included, are neither particularly daft nor particulary bright. We have jobs and social lives and make the most of our free time. While the 'Holy Grail' in Gaelic is to reach fluency, what really makes the whole thing really come to life is to reach a conversational level - a level at which we can express ourselves. If you're doing the 'regular route' of distance learning by Cùrsa Inntrigidh followed by Cùrsa Adhartais with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, that 'Eureka' moment comes roughly towards the end of the first year of Cùrsa Adhartais or during the second year.

The first two years of learning Gaelic, in my experience, can be the toughest. You learn and learn and learn and you still can't seem to be able to string a sentence together. Sure, you can say 'Ciamar a tha thu?' and as long as someone comes out with a response you know, you're good. You may get a few sentences down the line then the whole thing will stall. The person you're speaking to uses phrases and words you really don't understand, or you don't have the vocabulary to express what you want to say, and the sheer frustration makes you end up switching to English and you loose face.

However, if you keep at it and keep practicing your 'key phrases' and expanding your vocab, you'll eventually reach that Eureka moment where you hold your first conversation entirely in Gaelic. It might be broken Gaelic, there may be mistakes galore and the odd bit of 'Beurla' here and there, but you somehow manage to keep it all on track until the 'Mar sin leat' or 'Chì mi a-rithist thu' at the end. I guarantee you, the first time that happens, you'll be walking on air.

If you look back through the blog you'll see my frustration in the earlier days with the entry 'Why won't you talk to me?'

However, as I toured the Islands doing my project for 'Saoghal na Gàidhlig' (Module 7 of Cùrsa Adhartais') I found Gàidhlig gu leòr. It seems that if you stick at it, and people start to get to know you and know your story, you'll get Gaelic wherever it is found.

Of course, nobody but nobody ever stops learning Gaelic. Once you hit conversational level, the next stage is to expand your vocab and eliminate your mistakes until you hit fluency. Yet Gaelic is such a rich language, even the most fluent and learned speakers will always admit that there is plenty more out there to learn. That's the joy of Gaelic - its richness beyond measure. If you keep at it, it's all there for the taking.

You just have to keep going at your own pace; whether that is three months or three years, it really doesn't matter how long it takes to get there, just as long as you simply keep going. That's all you have to do.


  1. For someone not exclusively doing it, yeah, 3 years sounds about right assuming they DO apply themselves when they study/practice. You could collapse that to 3 months as you suggested, tongue in cheek, but that would require intensive tutoring and immersion and forsaking Beurla for the time.
    Math a rinn thu!

    1. Oh yeah, maybe I didn't make it clear that it's not exactly a piece of cake! ;) I took the interviews on Beag Air Bheag at face value as I have nothing to suggest otherwise. Tapadh leibh airson am brath seo,a charaid!

  2. Yes, I'd say 3 years is reasonable. It took me about 2 years but I went to SMO for one of them!

  3. Let's refine your question even further :
    'How long does it take to the average English speaking person of average ability with a fairly busy life to learn Gaelic to a conversational level?'
    Because as far as I’m concerned, I’m getting to a point (1 year and a half) to which, quite frankly, I’m sick of studying Gaelic through English.
    Almost all resources are designed for English speakers – things like explaining why the genitive comes after its noun (obvious in Romance languages, but also in some other Germanic languages), explaining that no, you can’t omit the conjunction of a subordinate clause in Gaelic (again pretty obvious in French, Spanish, German…), or like explaining that « eighty » or « four-twenty » are equally acceptable (again, obvious in French, but also in Danish…)
    Yes, Gaelic is mostly spoken in the UK and yes, most learners are English speakers.
    But It would be sooooooooo much richer if there was more materials comparing it with other languages, not just only English.
    It wouldn’t have to be French, German or Spanish (let’s avoid hot political topics) but why not going back to good old Latin or ancient Greek for instance?
    I’m probably too old fashioned.

    1. Tha mise nad bheachd cuideachd, a Bhuidheag. Tha mi fileanta sa Spànntis agus bha mi ag ionnsachadh na Cuimris agus chuidich gu leòr. Tha an teaghlach cànain "Romance" nas faisge air na cànanan Cheilteach, na an dàrna cuid is a' Bheurla.
      Rinn mi a' chiad chòmhradh sa Ghàidhlig an-diugh agus thòisich mi ag ionnsachadh ach san Dàmhair an-uiridh. Ach bha mi ag ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig a h-uile uair saor.
      Ciamar a dh'ionnsaich mise: cùrsaichen beaga BBC, làrach-lìn Akerbeltz, cluinntinn Radio nan Gàidheal, agus sgrìobhadh artaigilean airson Uicipeid na Gàidhlig. 'S urrainn taic a chleachdach mar "reference grammar": tha sin math, oir nach eil foighidinn agamsa idir airson "grammar exercises."

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  5. It's so encouraging to hear you say that the eureka moment comes halfway through the Cursa Adhartais. I'm a Borderer and have no opportunity to speak Gaelic outwith the phone tutorials. I've done the Cursa Inntrigidh and as you say, I struggle to say anything interesting. Looking forward to the eureka.
    Obviously, if one's rich and can drop everything for a year and do the Cursa Comais, then yes, one can become fluent in a year! But that's not the situation of most of us.

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