How to Learn Scottish Gaelic
How would you feel if you were beaten up for speaking a language? What if that language was your mother tongue?
This is what used to happen to children in Scotland, if they spoke Scottish Gaelic.
In 1872, the British government introduced compulsory schooling for children in Scotland. This should have been a good thing – and in many ways it was. Unfortunately, children who attended school were actively discouraged from speaking Gaelic.
In fact, children caught speaking Gaelic were often belted by their teachers, and interrogated about who they’d been talking to. They could face further physical punishment if they didn’t give up the names of other Gaelic speakers.
Thankfully, attitudes towards Gaelic began to change in the 20th century. But the damage was done, and Gaelic entered sharp decline.
Could you be part of its revival?
Why Learn Scottish Gaelic?
Gaelic is a language rich in culture and history. It existed long before English, and nowadays many Scots are choosing to learn Gaelic as it is part of their Scottish heritage.
It has been a language in decline, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. By learning Gaelic, you would be helping in sustaining the language, and become part of an important movement that’s placing Gaelic back at the centre of Scottish life.
Since the Gaelic Language Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2005, Gaelic has become an official language in Scotland and now receives equal status with English. Since then, the Scottish government has invested a lot of money in encouraging the teaching of Gaelic and as a result, many new courses and websites have appeared. Official documents now must be translated into Gaelic and this means more job opportunities for Gaelic speakers than before.
Gaelic is spoken by around 57,000 people in the most beautiful parts of Scotland (mainly the Western Isles). Gaelic is now being taught in schools again in various parts of Scotland and there are also some schools where all subjects are taught in Gaelic. For those interested in music, the fiddle was very popular in Gaelic communities. Gaelic music, songs and traditional ceilidh gatherings are still plentiful in Scotland and in other parts of the world that celebrate Scottish culture.
Why did I choose to learn Gaelic? It really appealed to me for several reasons. The first one is that it is the second language of my home country and yet I couldn’t speak a word of it. Considering I spoke other languages, I thought I should start to dedicate time to learning Gaelic. Then my grandparents told me that my great-grandfather spoke Gaelic and that he taught the language to adults. Gaelic was spoken within the family home but it was never passed down as far as me. This made me more determined to learn the language and bring it back into the family.
I started to look around for courses and I registered on a distance learning course with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig which suited my circumstances very well. I also bought a few other resources such as books, CDs and a DVD series and I started watching the Gaelic programmes on BBC Alba to learn more about the language, culture and way of life in the Scottish highlands and islands where it is spoken.
Can I Learn Scottish Gaelic Without Living in Scotland?
Yes, you can learn Scottish Gaelic, wherever you live in the world! With the availability of distance or online courses, internet resources and books and DVDs, there are now various options for learning Gaelic without having to even set foot in Scotland!
The Best Way to Get Started in Gaelic
When starting to learn Gaelic, I’ve found it is best to start by looking at a pronunciation guide with audio such as BBC Beag Air Bheag or Akerbeltz. This is because in Gaelic, the sounds are not completely phonetic and the combination of consonants can produce some sounds that don’t exist in English or other languages. The Learn Gaelic Dictionary also includes audio for every word.
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics of pronunciation, I recommend textbooks that include a CD or audio files such as Colloquial Scottish Gaelic or Teach Yourself Gaelic. Gaelic orthography (the rules of written Gaelic) is probably the most challenging aspect of the language. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to use the audio along with your texts in the book.
When I’m using a text book, I set myself mini goals based on the textbook. For example finishing a chapter and then learning the vocabulary by creating my own flashcards with Anki and then moving on to the next chapter once I’m confident with the vocabulary I’ve learned.
The Teach Yourself and Colloquial books also teach you the grammar that you will need to be able to reach intermediate level.
Textbooks are an excellent foundation for learning Gaelic, but alone they’re not sufficient. That’s why I recommend using a variety of resources in your language learning. This prevents boredom and keeps you motivated.
The DVD series ‘Speaking Our Language’ is an entertaining way to learn Gaelic phrases and I watched one episode a week along with using my other materials.. The DVDs are filmed in Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland and contain many different speakers in each episode. The new vocabulary is displayed on the screen both during and after each episode so that you can write down the words and add them to your Anki deck.
I suggest starting speaking practice as soon as possible. That way, you will gain confidence and learn from your mistakes at an early stage and your listening skills will also improve if you can practise conversation with a partner. For this I recommend Preply (our review is here).
To practise writing, I find writing a journal is an effective method which also helps me retain vocabulary. On sites such as Preply, you can use the notebook feature for this and you can also receive corrections from fluent speakers.
Once you reach intermediate level, I would suggest delving into a wide range of resources, such as those I’ve listed below. YouTube also has plenty of videos and Gaelic. And for “real world” practice, news websites such as the BBC, the Scotsman and Danamag are an invaluable resource.
You could also join a distance learning course where you will have the support of a teacher throughout and your course provider will provide you with resources. These are available from beginner level. I started as a beginner on the distance learning course with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the main Gaelic college in Scotland. I found having the support of a tutor was very helpful for correcting my pronunciation.
Resources for Learning Scottish Gaelic
- BBC Beag air Bheag. An online Gaelic course aimed at beginner level with 35 units to complete. There is a useful pronunciation section with audio for beginners.
- Learn Gaelic Online Courses. This course includes 60 lessons for beginners. The lessons are interactive and include a quiz at the end. There’s also a “Watch Gaelic” section which consists of various short videos in Gaelic with a transcript available in both English and Gaelic.
- Learn Gaelic Dictionary. This is the best online dictionary available as it includes audio for each word. Translations are available for full phrases as well as individual words. An alternative dictionary is available on Am Faclair Beag.
- Akerbeltz Gaelic Pronunciation Guidance. An introduction to sounds in Gaelic, some of which do not exist in English. There are 13 links at the bottom of the homepage for each section.
- BBC Bitesize Gaelic. Aimed at school pupils in Scotland, this site is very useful for listening and reading exercises. This page also contains some grammar explanations and exercises.
- Taic Online Gaelic Lessons. Some 55 lessons from beginner level, mainly focusing on grammar. There is also an audio guide to pronunciation, as well as a vocabulary list.
- Gaelic For Parents. This resource features a variety of activities for both parents and children from ages 3 to 11 including games, songs, listening, reading and flashcards. It’s not only useful for kids!
- Speaking Our Language DVDs. A four part DVD series published by the BBC starting with beginners level Gaelic lessons.
- Island Voices. A project for Gaelic learners to watch videos or listen to audio and improve their listening skills. The videos contain dialogues aimed at various levels and have been filmed in The Hebrides. There are various topics to choose from and some videos contain transcripts of the dialogue for you to follow.
- BBC Alba. A television channel available throughout the UK where all programmes are in Gaelic with English subtitles. The variety of programmes is excellent, they include music, culture, history, children’s, news and sport. The site also provides access to listen to Gaelic Radio ‘Radio nan Gàidheal’. The BBC iPlayer feature to watch television programmes and listen to the radio is only available to people in the UK..
- BBC News in Gaelic. A BBC News website with various news articles in Gaelic, mostly relating to Scottish news.
- Preply (our review is here). A place to find language partners or tutors who can speak to you over Skype or Google Hangout. There is also a ‘notebook’ section where you can write your own texts in Gaelic and a fluent speaker can correct it for you.
- Tobar and Dualchais Oral Recordings. This is a very interesting site comprising of thousands of oral recordings from Scotland since the 1930s, many of which are in Gaelic. The recordings include stories, songs, radio and verse.
- An Drochaid Stories. Various short recordings in Gaelic with access to the transcript. Suitable for intermediate or advanced learners.
- Danamag. An online Gaelic magazine containing articles on various themes aimed at intermediate or advanced level learners.
- The Scotsman Newspaper Gaelic Articles. For intermediate or advanced learners, the Scotsman publishes a few online articles in Gaelic.
Courses for Learning Scottish Gaelic
For students living outside Scotland who would like to follow the structure of a course or perhaps gain a qualification from studying Gaelic, there are several options.
- Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is the main Gaelic college in Scotland. They are based on the Isle of Skye and they offer courses by distance and also short courses over a week during the summer and Easter periods. The distance courses offer a chance to gain a qualification and you can study Gaelic right up to degree level. The tutorials are done in small groups by phone and you can choose a suitable time slot including evenings. For the one week intensive courses, they offer accommodation at the college and courses at various levels from beginners to advanced. They also other interesting ancillary courses such as Gaelic music and song.
- Gaidhlig Gach Latha. An organisation in the USA who arrange group classes on Skype from beginners to advanced levels. The classes have various start dates throughout the year. They also offer private lessons on Skype and courses by email.
- Atlantic Gaelic Academy. Offers weekly group classes taught over the internet covering five levels from beginners to advanced.
What about if you want to learn on a face-to-face course? The venues listed below offer intensive on-site courses at various points in the year. These could be combined with a longer visit to Scotland:
- Moray Language Centre. Based in the north of Scotland, Moray Language Centre runs on-site courses that can run from one to eight weeks at a time. They offer courses at various levels.
- Ravenspoint, Isle of Lewis. A one week intensive Gaelic courses for beginner and intermediate levels are held in May, July and August. The accommodation options include staying in the home of a Gaelic speaking local family or staying on-site at the hostel. As well as language tuition, other activities are planned for the students including sightseeing and a visit to a local church service in Gaelic where the unique Gaelic Psalms singing can still be heard.