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O ghlùin gu glùin

It’s been a while since my last post but between my crazy schedule and the even crazier world at large, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise. Anyhow, recently I’ve embarked on a rather novel endeavour – for me anyway – involving the pitter-patter of tiny feet. Felt like a good topic to start blogging a bit again, especially since we reached a linguistic milestone on Sunday. Perhaps it’s nothing new to those who have been there and done it but given the recent “news” about Gaelic, I thought why not, on the offchance there might be something useful for other folk in my personal journey down this road. And who knows, you might have an idea or two for me to try.

A while back we got some new neighbours who turned out to be a lovely couple with a 2 year old son and a sibling-on-the-way. We got on really well with them and promptly struck up a friendship. To my delight, the mother has school Irish she’s quite happy to use so we quite frequently try to find common linguistic ground somewhere between Scottish Gaelic and Irish. Somehow the topic got onto schools one day and I mentioned that the Gaelic school is not far away and had a really good reputation. Knowing I am sometimes accused of not knowing when to stop, I left it at that. Although I may have mentioned a willingness to help the lad pick up some Gaelic. To my surprise, both parents were really smitten with the idea so we agreed that when the second child had appeared, we’d set up “Gaelic playtime”.

I must admit I looked forward to this with some trepidation. I have over the years worked with kids, going as far back as the 90s when I was involved in a homework help/after school activities initiative for children of asylum seekers in Germany. But while some people find it easy to connect and engage with kids, I’m really not a natural. My guess is that I’m just such an introvert whereas most kids are full-on extroverts. But nonetheless I felt it was the right thing to do, for them and for myself. In part I felt I needed a bit of a challenge to stop me from turning into a total hermit crab and also because I had this “headful of Gaelic” but nobody to pass it on to. Yes OK, there’s the Faclair Beag and my zillion other projects. But no chance for what Gaels call o ghlùin gu glùin, from knee to knee (i.e. generation to generation), the way language and culture is supposed to get passed on. This seemed like a great opportunity in many ways, so I decided to jump in at the deep end.

December saw the little baby brother appear and round about February, mum felt up to starting some Gaelic sessions. I went down to the Gaelic Books Council to get them some Gaelic bookbug bags, and pointed them at various online resources, including BBC Alba and their great collection of Gaelic children’s cartoons. I gave myself a nudge and also gave them my collection of Gaelic picture dictionaries in the full knowledge they would not look pristine afterwards. It was, after all, the intended purpose of these books… His mum had already started to sprinkle some Irish into the daily routines, things like oíche mhaith (goodnight). We’d talked about this and figured that the two languages were close enough and that the discrepancies would iron themselves out over time as mum and junior would pick up more Gàidhlig.

Since I’d never spoken English with him – or perhaps because it’s much less of an issue for children that age if they don’t understand everything someone is saying – he seemed to accept my making all these strange words at him quite readily and we settled into a routine where I would come down on a Friday and read books and play with the laddie, all in Gaelic.

And then Covid happened. We heeded advice and along with most of life, the Gaelic sessions were put on hold. I dug up an old laptop, put Gaelic Linux on it and took it downstairs so he could at least watch Gaelic cartoons (as they don’t have a TV). Pàdraig Post and Peppa Muc to the rescue!

This month we finally decided it was safe enough to start again. Given he was now heading for his 3rd birthday, I cleared some more time and started aiming at 3 sessions a week, about an hour or two to make up for lost time. Fortunately he was delighted to see me again and we settled into the new routine quite happily.

Of course he wasn’t speaking Gàidhlig, I wasn’t expecting him to, but it was encouraging to hear him come out with the odd word. Having developed a real fetish for fire engines I can’t quite fathom, einnsean-smàlaidh (fire engine) was perhaps what I heard him say most often, along with the odd ubhal (apple) and bainne (milk). It was also the only images he’d spend more than half a second on speed-leafing through Dealbh is Facal (one of the picture dictionaries). Desperately looking for an in, I decided to try and use this obsession with fire engines and set about making a set of Memory-style cards with animals as firefighters. The internet taketh, the internet giveth, I even found Peppa Muc as a firefighter and so the muc-smàlaidh (firefighter pig) joined the sìobra-smàlaidh (firefighter zebra), the cù-smàlaidh (firefighter dog) and a dozen or so other animals, plus one fear-smàlaidh (fireman) and a bean-smàlaidh (firewoman, cause it’s 2020…).

He was delighted with these and crucially – I’ll come back to this – it allowed us to focus on one object at a time. Greatly aided by his willingness to ask the same question (in this case “what’s this?”) over and over, we went over them again and again. I began to introduce what the animals say in Gàidhlig as opposed to English and soon “what’s this?” joined by “what’s it say?”. He clearly thought this was a hoot, especially the caora-mè-smàlaidh (the baa-firefighter-sheep).

Occasionally there’d be a bit of a fun linguistic tussle over whether it’s oink oink or gnost gnost but for the most part, he seemed happy that there were what-would-Mìcheal-say words and, well, other words. He was beginning to get the concept of Gàidhlig and English being two language at a more abstract level. His pronunciation also seemed to improve rapidly, so while the caora-mè had started life out as a /kərəmə/, it was now getting much closer to /kɯːrə mɛː/ and fascinatingly the frog-potty he uses is /wosgan/. It’s fascinating because – I’ll explain this for non-Gaelic readers – Gaelic has 3 L sounds. Adult learners default to the weak English /l/ sound but clearly to his ears, the dark /L/ sound in losgann (frog) was much closer to a /w/ than a /l/. All the more fascinating as there are dialects where the dark /L/ is regularly pronounced as /w/ (Islay and thereabouts).

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Lovely as it is, at this stage while introducing a second language, there just seems to be too much going on for a nearly 3 year old.

Two sessions ago we managed to get past the fact that a Numbers book was in English and just talk about it in Gàidhlig. To my delight, with there only being one of a kind on each page, he seemed much happier to linger on a page. The downside of course being that I must have said daolag uaine (green beetle) and flùr pinc (pink flower) about a million times. Well, maybe 20 times but it felt like more! But as I was aiming for repetition, I was extremely happy about it – on an abstract level.

Trying to think of other things that would involve lots of repetition, on Sunday I took down the cellotape because Dealbh is Facal had mysteriously acquired some tears (which annoyingly (for me) seemed more fascinating that the book itself!) and I figured I might as well get some teaching out of those tears! So I demonstrated and he immediately got the idea so I starting handing him bits of tape with the words seo pìos eile (here’s another piece), lots of cuir an-seo e (put it here) and endless praise with glè mhath (very good). To my shocked delight, half way through he started muttering pìos eile and towards the end kept saying glè math as well. Shocked because to be honest, I was not expecting him to say more than a single word that soon.

Encouraged (and slightly dismayed…) with the idea of endless repetition, we went back to the Numbers and the Colours booklets where, towards the end, he really made my jaw drop when he said many daolagan (beetles). I really wasn’t expecting a correct use of a Gaelic plural at this stage either but there it was in all its shining glory.

Just to keep me in my place, he still didn’t come out with mar sin leat (goodbye) as I went upstairs and I know this won’t be a linear journey. Howeverafter a frustrating weekend of fighting with the Sonos sound system which had managed to screw up the WiFi, it was a much-needed high to end the weekend. I can’t wait to see where we go next but I’ll keep you posted!

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