Éasca Péasca (Easy Peasy): When the Student Becomes a Teacher
By Genevieve Laymon
For the first two years that I attended the University of Pittsburgh, I was not aware that a Gaeilge program existed within the University. I had been peripherally aware of Marie Young and her classes through my membership in Pitt’s Irish Dance Club. I knew the classes that she taught had something to do with Irish culture, though I was never exactly sure what and assumed that I had no reason to find out more.
It wasn’t until Saint Patrick’s Day of my sophomore year that I discovered the Gaeilge classes. I was in an Irish American history class, and our professor was holding an informal celebration. Of course, Marie and her class were invited and sang a cute song about a leprechaun as Gaeilge. I decided then and there to join the next Gaeilge 1 class.
Learning Gaeilge had been a dream of mine since I was a child. I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s grandmother, a fisherman’s daughter from Galway known to my family as “Nana”. It was Nana’s memory that had inspired me to learn Gaeilge.
Ironically, I’ve now realized that the time of her birth means she likely had no Gaeilge herself. Perhaps I have somehow filled in that language gap, made up for a few of the years that were lost.
Learning Irish – the day the lights came on
I almost didn’t stick around for very long. I struggled through sentences the same way one would trudge through thick, waist-deep mud. My brain was a machine broken beyond repair.
The day that the concept of “to have” was introduced was the day that I considered going straight to my advisor and withdrawing from the class. Still, I decided to stay a little longer and give it one more try. To my surprise, a few days later, something in my mind shifted. I could have sworn that I heard the sound of gears clicking into place. All at once, the concepts I struggled with were no trouble at all.
Pitt offers six levels of Gaeilge, and I have completed every one. By the final semester of Gaeilge, I was one of three students in the class. Being in such a small class did not bother me. In fact, I loved it.
I have always been a shy person and struggled to speak up in classes. Usually, I can manage to work around this, but in a language class it can become a significant barrier. In this case, each class felt like a conversation with friends.
As the semesters went on, we learned not just about Gaeilge but about each other as well. We each built up our own personal vocabulary relating to our interests and passions and shared those words with each other. From one classmate I heard all about book reviews and blogging, from another about mock trials and the woes of life with roommates.
Most of the vocabulary that my classmates learned from me was related to parrot husbandry and literary history. I still keep in touch with my classmates from that final semester. Our conversations are in Gaeilge, even now.
A Whole New World
I had been involved in Pittsburgh’s Irish community for years through my time as an Irish dancer, but since that first semester of Gaeilge, a whole new part of that world became accessible. The hurling club, the Irish culture club, pop-up Gaeltachts on the last Thursday of each month all opened up to me. That part of the world, which had seemed hidden to me before, was there all along, ready and waiting for those who had a willingness to embrace it.
Now, I am Marie’s TA for the fall 2021 semester, something I never thought I would do. I had one final semester after my sixth semester of Gaeilge, and I could not bear to have a semester without Gaeilge on my schedule. Helping Marie to teach in whatever ways I am able while still improving my own Gaeilge seemed like the perfect way to finish my time in University.
It is not just the Irish community that has opened up through Gaeilge. I have learned a great deal about myself and my own abilities. In elementary school I studied Spanish and in high school I studied French. Neither stayed with me particularly well, and these days I can’t remember much more than how to introduce myself or count to ten in either language.
For a long time I just assumed that I did not have whatever talent one needed to learn a new language. After taking Gaeilge, I’ve learned that this is not the case at all – passion for the language and a good teacher make a world of difference.
A Good Teacher Makes a World of Difference
In fact, I was even somewhat wrong about my language-learning skills. I have noticed that I am able to pick up on language patterns and sounds. On a whim I decided to try learning Russian, and so far it is going better than I expected. I even took a class on Middle English, where I learned to passably read, write, and speak the English that many of our Medieval counterparts would have spoken. Without my experiences learning Gaeilge, I doubt that I would have had the confidence to try either language.
As Marie’s TA, I am doing my best to share the joy that I found through Gaeilge with the students and discover new joys with them. I especially try to encourage the Level 1 students, as I understand how difficult those first weeks, even months, can be. My hope is that by finding the happiness and community that comes with Gaeilge, the challenge of learning the difficult and confusing parts of the language will be just a challenge, not something frustrating enough to make one quit.
I have compiled a list that I encourage the students to add to. It includes not just traditional resources to help with learning the language, but also the sort of things that made me enthusiastic: Pitt’s Irish clubs, music, books, television and movies, events, anything relevant.
I try to come up with simple ideas of how to incorporate Gaeilge into daily life: Change the language in your favorite video game to Gaeilge; add a Gaeilge keyboard on your phone; buy a few Gaeilge books (even children’s books!); and most importantly, get to know your classmates. There is no better way to practice than to speak it with friends. Between the pandemic, family problems, and health struggles, college has not been an easy time for me. Gaeilge has reminded me that I can continue when things seem impossible. I hope that other Gaeilge learners can gain the same confidence from the language that I did.