A few years back, we had a lovely young couple in our class, both were young professionals, organized, eager and able to learn and fun to be around. When I was trying to explain some point or reason for a grammatical change such as séimhiú or urú, the young woman would clench her fists over head and exclaim in exaggerated exasperation, “Why Irish, Why!” It broke the tension and helped everyone realize that they were not alone in their struggle.
Almost everyone has a difficult time learning a new language when they’re older. It seems our brains have a problem grasping new patterns and our tongues become tied over new and strange pronunciations. It’s known that brain function changes as we age, but there is no evidence to say that we cannot continue to learn, and that includes languages.
What is supported by studies is almost the opposite, as adults our knowledge base is different than that of a child. Learning too much at once or pushing too intensely to master a language may make the process more difficult than it needs to be.
For many years I have repeated to frustrated students who are trying to learn Irish, the way a high school senior might study English, trying to understand all the grammar or looking for “formulas,” that when we first learned English as children, it was in small steps.
We were able to communicate our needs and wants very early on, without knowing anything of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, a book I learned to despise in high school. Yet, many adult students want to jump in head first without the years of experiece we had with English before our encounter with Warriner’s.
As children, our brains were almost devoid of any real world knowledge, but as we grew we learned skills, such as those studied in school, our social interactions, our careers and interests. It should come as no surprise, our brains are full! Ask me the first guitar player to play with Miles Davis, no problem, but remember all three of the things Mary sent me to the store for, highly unlikely.
The good news is the parts of the brain that are responsible for processing language remain relatively unchanged from childhood to adult. It may slow somewhat in the elderly, but it still does not make it impossible to learn a language.
There have been studies to determine why some adult learners pick up new languages better than others. Immersion in a culture where the language is the primary language spoken, makes learning much faster than trying to learn where English is the main form of communication. If the only way to get through your day is to communicate through the new language, necessity will make you acquire the language quicker.
One other thing that holds us back as adults that children don’t suffer from is self- consciousness. Kids aren’t afraid to mess up, like we are as adults. We don’t like to look foolish as we perceive it. We also don’t have the advantage of listening to native speakers all day as we did when we learned English.
Guinness or uisce beatha (whiskey)
I belong to a few on-line forums where learning Irish is the topic. Recently there was a “serious” discussion about the benefits of Guinness or uisce beatha (whiskey) in assisting in the study of Irish. Although it was meant to be a bit of silliness, there were some insightful comments about breaking down that self- conscious attitude we develop around others. Personally, I think to learn Irish all you have to do is make some space in your brain and approach it with all the assuredness of a two-year old.
What is the Irish Language
Now that we know we’re capable of learning a new language, let me share a little bit about Irish. It’s one of the oldest languages still spoken today, it belongs to the Celtic family of languages, which is divided into two branches.
The Gaelic branch consists of Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx, they are all similar to one another. The other branch consists of Welsh, Cornish and Breton, and all differ dramatically from the Gaelic branch. Together they form one of the twelve branches of the Indo-European linguistic family.
There are three regional dialects, Ulster, Connacht and Munster, along with an official dialect that was adopted in the language reform of 1950. The official dialect is what is taught in schools and many self- learning sources. There are eighteen letters in the Irish alphabet, but you will see the remaining letters of the English alphabet used in loan words.
Vowels can be long or short, indicated by a mark over the vowel called a fada, the Irish word for long. Cosonants can be broad or slender. Spelling looks confusing at first, but the vowels that appear to be extra are there to aid in the pronunciation of the consonants. In English, there are far more exceptions than rules. In Irish, there are by comparison,very few exceptions.
Why Learn Irish
So why learn Irish? For many it’s personal, a family member is a speaker or a trip to the Gaeltacht is in the future. For others it’s because of an interest in Irish mythology and literature. Still some see it as a way of stimulating their brain.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “Learning never exhausts the mind.” In his book, “Thirty-Two Words for Field,” Manchán Magan wrote, “Can the language help make sense of who we are? Not just sense of the current population of this island but of all humanity – of those who evolved skills and higher consciousness over millennia and spread out northwards from Africa.
For what is most valuable about Irish is it’s direct link with the original Indo-European language, which gradually spread out from the region where humankind first settled and learnt to farm on the borderlands of Europe and Asia. This concept is not merely poetic or sentimental but reflects the simple truth that languages offer a connection to the inner lives of our ancestors. Old ways of thinking and living remain encoded in them.”
New classes will be starting September 6th. Hope to see you then.
Tóg go bog é agus foghlaim Gaeilge!
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Aisling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org