09.08.20 — Journal

Irish: A New Journey

Amongst my typical blog posts exploring my travels and day-to-day adventures, I sometimes pepper my blog with other little updates and observations. These can range from exploring the process of designing my new website to sharing silly stories from things that have happened to me. Today’s installation talks about something a little less visual, but something I hope will be equally as interesting: a new adventure in learning a language.

My relationships with languages other than English (even if my native dialect can be somewhat confusing, but that’s a whole other blog post) began quite earlier than most, as I began learning the some very basic French vocabulary at age 10 before I’d even made it to high school. This was some kind of initiative that my primary school had set up, whereby an external teacher would come in once a week and teach a select group of us words like ananas (pineapple), chat (cat), and garçon (boy).

As you may have picked up on from my apathetic tone, I don’t remember any of these words or basic phrases ever sticking with me as I moved into high school and the obligatory bi-weekly French classes that I had to endure. Now, I say endure for two principal reasons:

The first reason is that I don’t really believe that the way we were introduced to language learning was the best, with strict weekly vocabulary tests and listening to a monotone French lady whittle off a series of set phrases which they didn’t even bother obliging us to repeat.

The second reason is that, and forgive me all of you French speakers out there, but I just was not interested in France or the French language. I have since come to appreciate it as the beautiful and multi-faceted language that it is, but my thinking back then at the ripe age of eleven was much more basic: if we are being obliged to learn a language, and if me and my family always go on holiday to Spain, then why couldn’t we learn Spanish instead? At least it could come in useful*.

* Many, many years later I discovered that the principal language of Mallorca, where we usually holidayed, is in fact Catalan (even though Spanish is spoken). Oops.

At one point I even ventured so far as to sign up for extracurricular German classes that were being offered on Thursdays after school, only to give up on them rather quickly, but not before we’d all had a good laugh about the German word for the letter “G” (geh) sounding like “gay” and the word for “six” (sechs) sounding like “sex”. I found the pronunciation quite the tongue-twister, the structure an absolute nightmare, and the three genders an absolute pain in the arse. I certainly did not envy the other half of my year group who were made to study German instead of French.

Once it came time for my GCSEs, and after having cheated my way though many a French vocab test (Lucy, next to me would learn words 1–10, I’d learn words 11–20, then we’d just copy each other), they finally announced that they’d be offering Spanish as an option provided enough people were interested. I can only assume that many people thought like me, and that after being pressured into taking a language, they decided that that language might as well be useful when they were ordering drinks on holiday.

Thus began my journey learning Spanish. Two years of learning set phrases and stringing together basic sentences in secondary school were followed by two years of much more intense learning of the structures, patterns, and phonology of the language (the way it sounds). This knowledge was put into practice back in 2016 when I began an internship at Erretres, when six months of having my constant mistakes politely corrected on the daily served to radically improve my fluency and confidence. Since graduating from uni and returning to Spain, my vocabulary and fluidity have naturally been honed down much further, to the point where I now feel confident enough to say that I am fluent in the language. Of course people will still note my accent and the occasional error, but I have no problems now making myself understood or understanding others.

During these years of living between Spain and England, I also squeezed in two trips to the absolutely gorgeous city that is Lisbon. I’d also been to a town called Lagos in the south of Portugal a couple of times with my family in the past, but it was in Lisbon and Madrid that I made friends with quite a few people from Brazil, and so began another adventure in language learning: Portuguese.

Portuguese joins languages like Spanish, Romanian, Italian, and French (amongst many others) in forming a group called the Romance languages, which are all derived from Vulgar Latin, the language spoken in the Roman Empire. Because of this, they all share a lot of common features and vocabulary, and naturally Spanish and Portuguese are rather similar due to the geographical proximity of their respective countries. This meant that with a bit of help from Duolingo and many of my Portuguese-speaking friends, I soon developed a decent enough level the language to hold a conversation, drawing on Spanish as a base and applying some general rules and a sprinkling of the most important vocabulary (it’s said that the two languages have a 90% similarity in terms of words, so I’ve just to learn that 10%).

This all brings me on to my latest adventure in language learning, involving a language which many people don’t even realise exists: Irish. If you are indeed aware of the language’s existence, please don’t be fooled into thinking I should be calling it “Gaelic”, as the name “Irish” is preferred by its speakers, and so it is the term that I shall be using.

Well, if I thought German was a nuisance with its genders and structures and odd word order, it has absolutely nothing on Irish. This ancient language has the most bizarre way of expressing basic things (“I have a drink” translates as “There is a drink to me”), it completely lack an equivalent for the words “yes” and “no”, and has a very intricate and terror-inducing system for spelling words (“beochaoineadh” sounds like “bay-oh-keen-yu”). Then there’s all the mutations, which can affect both the beginning and the end of words, and completely change the sound and meaning. These mutations are sometimes just to make sounds flow better (“pláta” becomes “bpláta”), sometimes they change the relationship of one word to another (technically called cases, but it’s a whole other rabbit hole that I’m not about to go down), and sometimes it’s to conjugate the verbs (like in Spanish and even English to a degree, so this I can manage).

I have just spent a whole paragraph complaining about and semi-bashing the language, then why on earth, one may ask, am I dedicating my limited free time to learning it?

To start with, there’s the most basic reason, which is that I like a good project to sink my teeth into in my spare time. I don’t think there’s much in the world which is as complex and multi-faceted as an entire language (programming languages included), and I know there’ll always be more to learn and improve on as time goes on. And, as mentioned, the complexity of Irish is sure to provide quite a decent challenge!

Then there’s a more personal reason, which is my Irish heritage. My grandma grew up in a small town in Ireland, where Irish was taught in schools, and she taught me a few phrases as a child. I’ve always been interested in finding out more about the place, and I’ve always liked to think that one of the best way to find out more about a culture is through its language.

So, here I am in the early throes of my Irish learning journey, currently using Duolingo on the daily in order to build up some basic knowledge. In my spare time I’m investigating things I don’t understand, teaching myself the complex structures and spelling rules, and listening to the news and some music in Irish. It’s going to be a long journey, and I definitely won’t be anywhere close mastering the language for a very long time, probably until I manage to get some real exposure to it, but I think it’s a challenge worth my time. It’s already had me challenging the different ways languages work, and how there’s so many different ways we could express ourself – Irish is one of the world’s oldest living languages, and it certainly shows!

Whilst I carry on with my journey, I’m hoping to launch my new website with an option to read in Irish whenever I get round to it (it’s currently only available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese), but until then, I’ll leave you with a lovely Irish song that I found.