Its speakers number in the tens of thousands. There are no monolingual speakers left alive. So why learn Gaelic?by Cal Flyn / June 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The first time I try to learn Gaelic, I go with my mum. We enrol on a week-long immersion course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye. Beginners I, our course is called, and it assumes no knowledge.
We start from the very beginning: consulting notes at every corner, fearing the spotlight, feeling every syllable strange in our mouths. The teacher stands to write a question on the board and we regard it solemnly. “Dè an t-ainm a th’ort?” Together we pick the sentence apart and put it together again, wondering at its strangeness: what is the name that is on you?
I learn to put the names on us, with a certain amount of panache. “Is mise Cal,” I wobble, earning appreciative nods from around the room. “Agus seo Fiona. Tha i na—” I explain, with a confidential air, “—mo mhàthair.”
We’ve never been the sort of family in which I address my parents by their first names, but it feels nice to be suddenly peers: sitting beside each other in class and sleeping in twin beds. Together we rattle through the basics. “It is windy,” we inform each other in halting syllables. Or: “I have one sister.” Sometimes these statements are true; more often they aren’t—the facts manipulated to generate the simplest or most adventurous language. “I don’t like soup,” I announce to the class on Friday. “But I like making soup.” “Liar,” says Mum, out of the corner of her mouth, as the teacher observes us good-humouredly from the front of the room. When not teaching immersion courses, he tells us, he is the Gaelic voice of Daddy Pig on BBC Alba’s version of Peppa Pig.
In the evenings, over dinner in the hall, we practice our conjugations. Sometimes we walk to the rocky beach on the other side of the headland to watch for otters, and on the way we talk about Mum’s childhood on the island. A traditional Highland upbringing in many ways—but an Anglophone one, in an increasingly Anglophone world. “Isn’t it awful,” her father said once, after she and her siblings were grown, “that none of you speak any Gaelic.” But he didn’t teach it to us, says Mum. They often didn’t, that generation.