Interview in Irish (as Gaeilge): Raidió na Life, modern Irish use and how I got into the language myself

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Check out today’s video interview with Diarmuid Ó Mathúna from Raidió na Life, and don’t forget to click Youtube’s subtitles button to get an English translation.

While my level in Irish level is still far what I consider to be fluent, being able to actually get interviewed on the radio in the language (one of my major goals of the summer) holds a particular place of pride for me above how doing it in other languages would.

My unfortunate wasted education in the Irish language

The level you hear me use here is after two months total of time spent either immersed in or studying Irish as an adult. These two months were broken up into various visits to the Gaeltacht or the weeks just before going and studying for it, over the space of five years, where I’d always be focused on some other language outside of those two months.

I’ve said before that I had spent five years learning German in school and not been able to even order a train ticket after all that. What’s worse than this though is that I had spent ten years “learning” Irish in school, and to be honest I found most of this a complete and utter waste of time because it was far too academic or with subject matter I found boring/irrelevant. Irish was without a doubt the worst of all of my subjects in school because of this.

(Note, “Irish” is the name of the language, not Gaelic. Click here for more background information about Irish)

My teachers were certainly eager to help us, and tried their best to make it more fun, but the material and the system it was presented in was just far too inefficient. Ridiculously so;

After all that time, I honestly couldn’t form the most basic sentences, and could do no more than blurt out a few dozen words or five or six phrases (An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leathras…); something that nowadays I’d do in my first afternoon learning a language. One afternoon of language learning stretched across a decade…

This is a sorry state of affairs, and unfortunately it represents the situation for many adults in Ireland, not because “the language is hard”, but because it was taught to make it hard, and to extinguish any chance of pride or interest in using the language outside of school. In fact, there is a sense of resentment with the language for many Irish people, because of the way it was forced on them in school in such a dull manner.

It was even worse for me, because I personally dropped down to the Lower (Ordinary) level for my university entrance exam, passing it more on good exam strategies than any kind of language skills. For example, I would look at words in the question and copied the sentence containing those words from the text being examined (conveniently with paragraph indications to help); I might as well have sat an exam of similar standards in Swahili, after spending a few minutes to recognise just the question words.

Many people who didn’t do well in the system, would have still been better off than me and could at least have a basic conversation if they had to, or perhaps know a few hundred words, thanks to having done the more challenging Higher Level exam. (Although, having done the higher level myself in German, you won’t hear me sing its praises much either :) )

Luckily there’s hope!

Luckily, things have changed dramatically in recent years.

Nowadays, we have TV with lots of fun programs in Irish, including a soap opera and plenty of children’s shows, that you can watch online. In fact there are tonnes of online resources for learning and practising Irish.

Also, the Irish education system which had done such a terrible job over the decades has started to catch on, and now primary school Irish is made much more interactive, fun and relevant, and about using the language more naturally. I’m told that secondary school Irish is still too academic in comparison (for the purposes of adding structure/literature to the language), but at least up to then it seems like there is more potential to inspire real use of the language, which there wasn’t for me.

But what about those of us who went through a decade or more of the previous set up, which ultimately leaves you actually disliking the language?

I’m hoping that by showing that if this lower level Irish student, can sit a radio interview entirely in the language, perhaps a few other Irish adults will join me in diving back in and using the language as it was truly meant; as a means of communication!

As you can hear, I hesitate a little and do make a couple of wee mistakes, but lack of perfectionism, and embracing making mistakes and focusing on saying something, is what I owe for being able to actually communicate in Irish now.

How I got into Irish

What initially got me curious was coming across the Assimil Irlandais de poche book, while I was living in France. I was starting to realize that learning languages in general wasn’t as hard as I had thought, and this fresh new presentation of the language got me interested. I had resolved to go to the Gaeltacht the following summer.

I signed up to Oideas Gael, the adult course in Donegal for three weeks straight. I started at the absolute bottom and was ashamed to see people from Russia, Africa, Japan, Italy and South America in levels above me speaking Irish way better than this Irish person. But rather than have that discourage me, it just reminded me that anyone really can do it.

You can see a video I made after that first immersion experience here. Slowly, but surely, I kept up with the speakfromday1 philosophy of genuinely using the language all the time. The course itself wasn’t why I was there, but for the encouraging environment of other learners and a place where I could genuinely socialise daily in the language.

Thanks to those three weeks, I felt confident enough to record some videos in Youtube in Irish – although I’d be reading a script that I had native speakers correct for me. You can see all the videos I’ve made in Irish here.

Every second year or so I would set aside another week or two to go back, and push my level up a notch. I slowly climbed up the levels at Oideas Gael, and even spent a week in Connemara at a similar adult course, while hitchiking through Ireland and its various Gaeltachts.

Finally, this year I set aside another couple of weeks and went back to Glem Cholm Cille, and signed up to their most challenging course: Saibhreas Na Gaeilge (Richness of Irish). I was definitely the worst in the class, but I like how much it pushed me up. For reading practice, I would read the native-produced Irish translation of the Language Hacking Guide.

After this experience I spent a couple of days in Gaoth Dobhair, the largest Irish-speaking region of the country, and finally made it to the Raidio na Life studio in Dublin to take them up on an interview offer they gave me some time ago when I wouldn’t have felt ready for it.

Living through the language: who’s with me?

Now, I can truly say that I’ve lived my life through Irish for most of those two months. I have friends I only ever talk in Irish to, I got my heart broken in Irish, I’ve had serious discussions in the language, and lots of fun ones in pubs (over an Orange Juice) and over the Internet.

I’ve also sent tonnes of text messages in Irish; there is a text-language version of things of course! 2nite is an8 (anocht), week is 7n (seachtain), darling is a# (a thaisce), he is 6 (sé), way/think is 2í (dóigh)…

I’m definitely not finished, and plan to continue going back to the Gaeltacht and just meeting up with other Irish speakers elsewhere, to push myself towards real fluency, but hopefully my level was enough for a somewhat interesting interview! If I can do that, then any other adult learners can certainly dive into the language and use it in social situations :)

Any thoughts on the video or my background in getting into the language? Let us know in the comments!



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  • WC

    It occurred to me that if I were in your position, I might find it enjoyable to think about how I’d teach a class the right way, since you have so much real-world experience with language learning. Have you ever considered it?

    I’ve also been very disappointed with the classes I took on language learning, but I don’t think it’s totally a lost cause. I think it just needs a major reworking. I don’t know if that reworking is compatible with the rest of the educational system, though, since it’s so heavily dependent on ‘standardized’ tests. It seems to me that this method would work much better if it tailored the lessons to current events, instead of a textbook’s order.

    At the very least, I think I’d want 2-hour classes, probably with a 2-hour lab as well. (So basically 4-hour classes.) I’d instruct the students to read the book and study the vocab at home, and use the classroom for actually using the language from day 1. I’d probably start off easy and have have hints or cheats on the board for the day’s target vocab, and actually use it while communicating with the students. After the first class or 2, which I’d use to get them used to teaching/learning-oriented words (listen, repeat, meaning, etc), I’d try to show more than tell, using props or video, as well as forcing them to interact with me and each other. Staying in the language as much as possible would be key to making this work.

    • Benny Lewis

      I was an English teacher for several years, and a Mathematics teacher since I was 16 ;) I might write a blog post some time about my particular way of teaching, from the perspective of a successful language learner.

  • Andrew

    It makes me absolutely sick to think of how many people in the world won’t ever learn a foreign language because of the terrible negative experience they had with language learning while in school. Some of these programs I swear seem like they were almost designed to kill creativity and any possible shred of desire to learn the subject at hand. Our education system in the U.S. is a goddamned disaster, but that’s another subject altogether that I could spend hours talking about.

    But…it’s great to hear you didn’t let it get you down, you didn’t use it as an excuse, and you went back in there and succeeded and had fun while you were at it. Good on you for that and thank you for sharing that with others so that they might realize they can do it, too. Maybe some people who otherwise never would’ve tried (possibly because they were ‘taught’ in school that they can’t learn a language) will now thanks to that.


  • Benny Lewis

    Yes, still hoping to go back and continue to improve my level.
    No, those people were not on any scholarship program that I’m aware of, but covered the travel and course expenses themselves.

  • Benny Lewis

    No, neither of the names you see is on my ID. ;)

  • Luach

    Laura, you cannot disagree because “Irish” is the official name of the language in English. It has been called that by English acedemics for centuries. (search Google Books). You will rarely hear people in Ireland call the language anything other than Irish or Gaeilge.

    Many foreigners when first learning Irish are surprised when they find out that the Gaelic dictionary they have is the wrong language. They should have bought an Irish Dictionary!

  • Benny Lewis

    Grma! Is féidir le gach duine ;) Go n-eirí leat!

  • George Millo

    So am I right in saying that “Gaelic” is a more general term for the group of languages and “Irish Gaelic” is the specific language? Are Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic mutually intelligible?

  • Corcaighist

    The Gaelic language of Ireland is either called “Irish” or “Irish Gaelic”. Irish people just say “Irish”. Those not in the know, and especially Americans incorrectly call the language “Gaelic”. Used correctly, the word “Gaelic” refers to two things: 1) the Gaelic languages (Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx) and 2) Scottish Gaelic. In Scotland though when referring to the latter one pronounces it “gahlik” while both senses are pronounced ‘gaylik’ outside Scotland.

    The short answer is ‘no’ but with a small amount of study a speaker of either can understand the other.