A “Brief Word” on the Gaelic Situation in Australia

Before I start, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not disrespecting anyone in the Gaelic community here. Yes, I get frustrated with the attitudes that seem prevalent at times. Yes, I get frustrated that more Gaelic isn’t spoken. Yes, I sometimes think about how much more could happen if the “younger” people didn’t always have someone pooh-pooh-ing their ideas. But, aig deireadh an latha, we’re all in this together.

I get annoyed with the establishment, but, truth be told, I’m somehow now a part of it. I express my frustration with the two Gaelic Societies, whilst conceding that I’m on the committee for both. I grumble about the choirs learning everything phonetically, whilst pointing out that I’m actually the Music Director for one of them. Yes, I wish things were slightly different. But it’s not anyone’s fault that things are the way they are. This post is simply a statement of the way things are, and a bit of an explanation as to how they got here. It’s not meant to be biased or provocative, but there are bound to be some people who will be upset by how I’ve described something.

I originally started writing the post in response to being asked several times by Americans and/or Canadians about Gaelic in Australia, my Gaelic life in Australia, and so on, and wanting to write down all my thoughts about what it is and how it got this way. Since then, I’ve had an unfortunate interaction with some bodach on Facebook, so I need to add this disclaimed.

Anyway, on with the “brief word” about the Gaelic situation in Australia (if that’s possible).

Gaelic used to be well-spoken in pockets around Australia, especially regional and semi-regional Victoria (such as Gippsland) and New South Wales, as well as the two capital cities, but it stopped being transmitted around the time of Federation (about a hundred years ago). That means the last native speakers died in the 70s and 80s. Well, the last one died in about 2012, but most of them were gone in the 70s and 80s.

However, they’re the ones (and their parents) who set up the Gaelic societies as formal community groups with committees, and it’s their grandchildren (now in their 70s-ish) who still, for the most part, hold positions and power within the official Gaelic community. So those people have memories of Gaelic being spoken, and while some have learnt Gaelic mostly from books over the last 30-40 years, others are mostly in the committees to preserve the memory that Gaelic was spoken, and are at times quite against any actual Gaelic being used in meetings, or even newsletters and other publications.

Those who have learnt Gaelic, though, are quite pro-Gaelic-use, although there are many varying levels of ability (from barely capable of greetings to pretty much fluent). But those who either can’t or won’t use Gaelic well tend to hold the balance of power in committees.

The books most popularly used in classes taught by these descendant-learners tend to have been published in the 60s, 70s, and 80s – so these people learnt the traditional spellings and tend to cling to them iercely and refuse to see any other spelling. (I have seen them argue for changing the spelling minimally on a song-sheet, even though most of the choir are just relying on phonetics and can’t speak Gaelic!). Part of this is the idolisation of Canada which seems to grip the whole nation at large (Justin Trudeau can do no wrong, apparently) – there have been many articles from Canada fiercely arguing against the revised spellings, and these are pulled out and waved around at any opportunity.

So there are these older people who have been committed members of the community for quite a long time, and they’re holding the balance of power, but one thing they often don’t realise or even ignore is that there are a LOT of younger speakers and learners these days – who either don’t access (or don’t have time to access) the traditional structures. Meetings are often held during working hours, or information is conveyed by word-of-mouth, and younger people simply don’t know about it or can’t get to it. Something I’m trying to do when I come across a new speaker or learner looking around online (which happens at least once a month, and I’m not on most of the social media!) is to connect them to the existing structure in their area… which they don’t know about, because often nothing is mentioned online.

The younger speakers fit into two broad categories: speakers (or proficient learners) recently immigrated from Scotland; and Australians (often with Scottish/Gaelic ancestry, but not always) who are learning. Often the Australian learners have had contact with SMO or another group in Scotland before they’re found by CGA or CGBh. These younger speakers are passionate, generally more proficient (on average) in the language than the older/established/powerful, but busy, available at different times, and much more connected online.

Sometimes I think it would be easy – so much easier – just to give up on the traditional structures and do our own thing with young New Speakers online, organise meet-ups that work for us, communicate via means that work for us… but that’s foolish. Younger speakers need the Gaelic Societies and the older people – native speakers, non-native learners who have years of experience running events and dealing with paperwork – just as much as the Gaelic Societies need the younger speakers.

In Adelaide, the Gaelic “class” meets on Tuesday mornings, with a group of retirees. Some have been learning for a while, or had Gaelic-speaking parents, and speak it quite well. Some have been learning for decades and still look at you with a blank smile when you say “Ciamar a tha sibh?”. One has come more recently, thrown themselves into the language, and frankly amaze me by how quickly they’ve got so proficient in such a short time.

With their blessing, I ran a course at the WEA, and found a dozen eager learners, most of whom had no idea the Tuesday morning class exist. Some of my class were retirees, had had an interest in Gaelic for a while, were of Scottish background – the standard mould for a Gaelic learner. Some were much younger – uni students. On social media, I also found a handful of other speakers in the Adelaide area.

In Melbourne, the Gaelic community is much larger and more active. There are around a hundred speakers, learners, and persons with an interest in the language. There are classes every week, and a choir, and regular cèilidhs – the sitting and singing sort. In Adelaide, you can hear Gaelic once a week, if you put your mind to it, but probably not speak it. In Melbourne, you can hear and speak Gaelic every day if you really want to. But it was in Melbourne that I first encountered the “preserving the memory that Gaelic was once spoken” attitude.

Sydney is the home of the national society, atlhough in truth, except when it comes to the Sgoil Nàiseanta, it’s very much more of a “Sydney Gaelic Society”. I haven’t lived in Sydney, so I don’t know the details, but there are regular classes and regular conversation groups.

There are of course Gaelic-speakers and Gaelic-learners scattered across Australia, including in the regional areas. With less than a thousand speakers nationwide, it’s very easy to be very isolated as a Gaelic-speaker. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that there’s simply more opportunity in the city – that’s why I live in a university hall of residence with a hundred other farm kids and country kids – and that’s no different with Gaelic. It’s simply easier to speak Gaelic regularly living in urban Melbourne than ever it was in the semi-rural Adelaide Hills.

The Gaelic community isn’t huge. It needs everyone there is. We’re a diverse group, and everyone has a different life situation, different ability level in the language, different desires for where the language should fit in their life. The situation isn’t the best it could be – but it isn’t the worst. The differences are not insurmountable. Many of us already work together in committees and planning events. I for one am confident that the Gaelic language – and the community of those who speak it – is going to be around for a long time yet. 

As predicted, this “brief word” has been anything but brief – it’s currently running to two and a half pages on the word document – and there’s so much left that could be said.

But to boil it down:

          Gaelic used to be spoken by small communities, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, but also nationwide

          It stopped being commonly transmitted as a first language about a hundred years ago, and most of the last Australian-born native speakers died in the 70s and 80s

          Many of the long-term members of the two Gaelic societies are the children and gradnchildren of these last speakers

          Many of those learnt Gaelic from books in the last few decades of the last century. Some are proficient to fluent. Most are supporters of the older orthographic conventions.

          Younger learners come from all backgrounds and connect mostly through social media. Some know about the Gaelic societies but many don’t know about their local branch, group, or class. Many have made contact with SMO or another group in Scotland before they can find local speakers and learners.

          The Gaelic community is of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. However, it is very small, unseen and unknown by wider society, and there is the perception among the older members that there are no young people and everything will die soon

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Gaelic? In Australia?

Twice recently I have encountered people who are surprised at the amount of Gaelic there is in Australia. It isn’t something I’ve thought much about, since I was raised in the Australian school system being taught that the first hundred years or so of European settlers were from the British Isles – and after all, there are only a few hundred Gaelic-speakers for all that.

At a fiddle workshop weekend run by musicians from Scotland, one of the tutors was mulling over the rediculousness of using Italian words when English ones should suffice. In particular, he said, Why should we say ‘arco’ when we could say ‘with the bow’? And why couldn’t we use the Gaelic? “We should all learn the Gaelic terms,” he said, but he didn’t know how to speak it. “Does anyone know how to say ‘with the bow’ in Gaelic?”

I thought he was asking the room at large – I learnt later he was addressing it mostly to one of the workshop graduates who had learnt Gaelic at school – and after a few seconds of awkward silence, I said, “It would be ‘leis a’ bhogha’, wouldn’t it?”

“It could be. What does that mean?”

“Literally ‘with the bow’. I don’t know if that’s a fiddle bow or just a rain-bow…”

“Do you yourself have the Gaelic?”

“Yes,” I nodded, a little embarrassed by the whole thing, and we moved on with the workshop.

A little later, one of the facilitators was telling us about the organisation. “We’re based in Scotland,” she explained. “Have any of you been to Scotland?”

About half of us put up our hands, me a little timidly. After all, I was a few days shy of my second birthday last time I was in Scotland. I can’t remember anything of it. To all practical intents and purposes, I haven’t been to Scotland.

But she looked straight at me and asked, “You’ll have been to the Highlands, haven’t you?”

Again, technically, I have, and I said as much, before gabbling out some excuse about having been a toddler when we came back to Australia.

Later in the day, the same facilitator caught up with me over morning tea and asked how I came to speak Gaelic.

The truth is, I don’t really have a sensible answer – about how I came to speak it or why. I told her a story about how my grandmother, who grew up in New Zealand, probably spoke it. I told her about how, as a teenager, I started spending more time with the Gaelic-speaking community in Adelaide than I had previously, I learnt to hold a basic conversation with them. I explained that, because I had been exposed to Gaelic for the first few years of my life, learning it as a teenager felt more like remembering something I already knew than it did the hard task of learning German when I started at a German-medium school for high school. I told her about how excited I’d been to move to Melbourne, where there are more than half a dozen Gaelic-speakers, and how I’d joined the Gaelic choir. I mentioned that Australia, like Canada, used older spellings and had a few different words. And I commented how, when I was doing the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig course, you could guarantee that every written assignment would come back with the word “‘n-uair” highlighted and the correction “nuair”, even though the former is how it was spelt in Scotland 30 years ago.

“Oh, so you did spend time at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig?” she asked. She seemed relieved to finally have a reasonable explanation about how I spoke Gaelic. I’d been to the immersion language centre on Skye.

“No,” I told her, “It was a correspondence course I did when I was in Year 12.”

According to the 2011 census, there are around 720 household speakers of Gaelic in Australia. Most of the Gaelic-speakers I know are the only speaker in their households, and so wouldn’t answer Gaelic on the census. According to Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia, there are Gaelic classes in every capital city, and learners’ groups in a number of regional centres as well.

Just a few days ago, someone posted a question on the FaceBook group Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Learners). Feeling curious, he asked,

“This may be a stupid question, but how come Gaelic is popular in Australia? I can understand having courses in Scotland (obviously) and Nova Scotia but if anyone ever asked me where they might be able to find a course, I would never have thought of Australia…”

There were a lot of responses. Ideas from non-Australian learners. Ideas from new Australian learners. Comparisons to other parts of the world with either lots of Scottish settlers or historic Gaelic where classes and groups no longer exist.

“Gàidhlig was briefl a major language in the early days of European invasion. There was even a newspaper called An Teachdaire Gaidhealach published in the 1850s which was 85% Gàidhlig.” – Prenna Ello.

“I suppose Scottish people have always had a presence in Australia, in numbers, and Gaelic has always been part of that – “Taladh ar Slanuighear” was written by a priest moving from Muideart to Australia in the 1850s, and he’s buried in Geelong. Recently I sang with Còisir Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria at the 150th anniversary of a church in outer Melbourne that was built by Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“My ancestors came from Skye to New South Wales in 1838. They could onl speak Gaelic and they attended the first foreign language church service in Sydney to offer thanks for their safe arrival. As the family historian I travel to Skye each year to immerse myself in Gaidhlig language and the wonderful culture of my forebears.” – Rachel Heath.

“My own family came out much more recently (I’m first generation, although there was some time spent in Dunedin/ NZ a few generations ago), but there’s always someone at Sgoil Nàiseanta who’s just started learning because he’s done some family history and discovered that his Gaelic-speaking family moved out in eighteen-whatever and continued using the language until his grandparents’ generation.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“My mother and her family moved to Australia from Scotland in the 60s. Part of my desire to learn Gaelic is because of my family’s connection.” – Kiah Bergman.

“The British Isles were always favoured for immigration, so there’s always been a constant flow of Scottish immigrants, presumably with an average representation of Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“So Gaelic societies in Australia are not a new thing and are often 100+ years old, with recent immigrants from Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, and “Australian-as-they-come” people with Gaelic-speking heritage who are re-connecting to the language, and – the most confusing part for me – a lot of completely non-Scottish-heritage-whatsoever people who are learning it.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“According to the 2011 census around 8.3% of the Australian population claim Scottish ancestry, which is the fourth biggest ancestry group represented in the figures. Not sure how this compares to other countries but it might be a factor. My question is why isn’t Gàidhlig *more* popular?” – Prenna Ello.

“Interestingly enough, hubby did some online training at work and one of the questions at the end of completing it had a drop down for identifing all languages spoken at home. Scots Gaelic was on it! So he picked it. I have never seen this on anything in Scotland and here it was in Adelaide.” – Ash Kane.

“I’m told Gaelic used to be offered with the School of Languages into the 90s so maybe it was once more widespread in Adelaide than we think…” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Gaelic was one of the languages on the SBS radio service until 2003.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

It was great bouncing around all those fantastic ideas an anecdotes, but there was another side of the story represented:

“Because Australia has immigrants from around the world and, not all the Scottish went to New Zealand.” – Simon Hogan.

“But I’m sure there are Scottish immigrants all over and you don’t see so many courses.” – Tom Morrison.

“Maybe it’s like Nova Scotia and there was a dense population of speakers in one or more areas.” – Fo Gish.

“The 2011 census had around 720 primary-language-at-home speakers of Scottish Gaelic listed, which is only around half as many as Nova Scotia I think – it’s just that Australia (even if it’s just the eastern states) is a lot bigger than that, even bearing in mind that Australia and New Zealand did get a lot of refugees from the Clearances. Gaelic was more spread-out here to begin with, so it’s not as well-known about as Nova Scotia.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Lotta Scottish in Appalachia, US, no Gaelic.” – Gwyn Fae.

“Lots of Scottish in South Australia, not historic Gaelic (a few learners these days but mostly recent immigrants). Most of the Scottish “founding settlers” in SA were from the lowlands from what I vaguely recall from primary school history lessons. Might be a similar sort of thing? Eastern states were taking immigrants at the right time to get a lot of people from the highlands & islands.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Until the early 1900’s, there was a Gaelic speaking community in North Carolina. Many Gaels settled in the mountains because they were reminded of the highlands of Scotland.” – John Grimaldi.

So what did Australia do differently?

We weren’t the only place to get Gaelic-speaking early settlement, but it wasn’t as dense as in Nova Scotia.

Gaelic stuck around in Australia for a while, like North Carolina, slowly dying until the early 1900s.

Australain-born Gael numbers have always been supplemented by newer immigrants from the UK – but they didn’t always come to the same places.

Gaelic societies were set up in Australia – but also in New Zealand, where many of them have ceased to be Gaelic societies and become generic “Caledonian” societies.

There are up to 1000 Gaelic-speakers in Australia today, with around 200 in Melbourne and many more in Sydney, where there is a native speakers social group, regular learners’ conversation groups, and it’s even taught at one of the universities.

All around Australia, there are Gaelic classes, Gaelic learners, and Gaelic speakers.

I suppose, reviewing the evidence, I can see why someone from Scotland or elsewhere would have such a hard time understanding that there are so many Gaelic-speakers in Australia. It doesn’t make sense for it to have stuck around so long. We shouldn’t have the numbers we do – even though they seem small to me – with two Gaelic choirs, an annual national live-in weekend, our own quirks of vocabulary and spelling, and courses and classes run every week of the year by locals to teach and preserve the language.

It probably shouldn’t be possible for a teenager to learn enough Gaelic for a conversation without ever leaving Australia.

Sgoil Nàiseanta 2017 Enrolment Form

/\ By the way – next month, 14th-16th, Brisbane.

Wasteage and Recycling

I’ve just watched the first episode of Craig Reucassel’s “War on Waste”, and it’s got me thinking… about how complacent I’ve become with not.

When I first arrived in Melbourne, in halls of residence, I was shocked at not having a separate bin for food-scraps. Quite a few of us were, actually. “Why can’t we compost it? There’s a garden – why not?”

An OH&S issue, apparently, but that was three and a half months ago and somehow, over those three and a half months, I’ve become okay with the idea of putting food-scraps in the same bin as all the non-recyclables. I don’t have to think about it anymore. In the first few weeks, I had to pause every time in front of the bins and work out where to put things. Now it’s just automatic.

At home, most of the food scraps were fed to the chooks; and anything that wasn’t was composted. Here, they just go to non-recyclable landfill where, according to Craig, they produce more methane than cows (or some similar statistic).

Two weeks after arriving, I had a slight meltdown on FaceBook about plastic bags. That’s definitely a state thing, because in South Australia, we haven’t had plastic bags since 2009. Yes, you can still pay 10c and get a biodegradable plastic bag, but we’ve been using cloth “green bags” since I was 13. My entire adult grocery-shopping life as involved green bags, brought along with you and filled to the brim by the checkout chick.

Then I arrived in Melbourne, and not only were the bags plastic, but only one or two things was put in each bag. My brain boggled. My brain couldn’t handle it. My quieter, less hurried South Australian mouth couldn’t speak fast enough or loud enough to ask the cashiers to do something different.

Bolstered by the assurances and suggestions of my new friends in Melbourne, I started taking me green bags along with me and asking the checkout chicks to fill those instead. I still have to repack them myself, because they still don’t know how, but at least I’m not getting any more plastic bags. I only got them for two weeks, and I’m still working through the pile of them as bin liners.

Two weeks’ worth of plastic bags. Three months later.

There are other things. I’m throwing out paper. I never did that at home. It all went on the fire, in one form or another, to keep us warm.

I have a box full of plastic containers and glass jars under my bed, because my brain can’t compute throwing them out.

Watching “War on Waste” has knocked some sense back into me. I don’t know how long it will last, because nothing’s going to change here, and my new environment will no doubt desensitise me again soon enough.

But watching the show has reminded me about just how shocked I was by all the waste when I first arrived her. It’s given me back, once again, just a little bit of the shock I had three months ago at the food-scraps going to landfill and the plastic bags carrying the shopping…

… and all the perfectly-shaped, perfectly ripe fruit and veg that means I don’t get the choice I’m used to having about the size of the fresh produce I buy because, at Foodland, all that “special” food that Coles and Woollies won’t sell is just in with all the rest of it.

 

Latha na #Gàidhlig sona dhaibh uile!

Bidh mi ag innsidh dhaibh cùplan rud mu dheidhinn Gàidhlig agus mise an-diugh.

Is mise Raghnaid NicGaraidh. Tha mi aon bliadhn’ ‘us fichead d’ aois agus tha mi às Astràilia-a-Deas. Agus – mar tha fios agaibh an-nis, tha mi cinnteach – tha Gàidhlig agam.

Chan eil Gàidhlig aig mo mhathair agus chan eil ach cùplan facal aig m’ athair. Tha sinn a’ smaoineachadh gun robh Gàidhlig aig mo sheanmhair, ach thàinig mo phàrantan air ais a dh’Astràilia an-uair a bha mi dà bhliadhn’ d’ aois, agus bha mo sheanmhair a’ fuireach ann an Sassainn.

An-uair a bha mi aig àrd-sgoil tromh meadhan Gearmailtis, bha mi airson Gàidhlig a dh’ionnsachadh. Chan eil ach còig no sia daoine le Gàidhlig ann an Astràilia-a-Deas agus rinn mi cùrsa le SMO. Ach cha robh àm no airgead gu leòr agam airson an cùrsa an-uair a thòisich mi aig an oilthigh.

‘S ann bho chionn tri bliadhna an-nis agus tha mi a’ fuireach ann am Meall Bùirn an-nis. Tha mòran Gàidhlig an-seo! Tha mi a’ seinn leis a’ Choisir Ghàidhlig Bhioctoiria gach seachdain agus, ged nach fhaod mi do ‘m Baile Mòr a dhol airson clàsaichean Gàidhlig, tha cùplan daoine eile an-seo le Gàidhlig agus faodaidh mi riutha a bhridhinn an-nis ‘s a-rithist.

Tha daoine le ùidh air Gàidhlig ann an Adelaide cuideachd, agus an-uair a tha mi an-siud, tha mi a’ teagasg clàsaichean na Gàidhlig. Bha barrachd air fichead daoine ‘s a chlàs an-uiridh! Tha aiteas agam gu bheil Gaidhlig cho mòr-chordte an-nis. An-uair a thòisich mi Gàidhlig a dh’ionnsachadh, dh’innis h-uile duine dhomh, “Don’t do that. It’s a dead language and it’s too difficult anyway.”

Chan eil sin ceart! ‘S e beò-cànan a th’ innte agus ‘s caomh leam i. ‘S Beurla mo chiad chànan ach is Gàidhlig cànan mo chridh’. Ach ‘s e cànan glè bheag a th’ innte cuideachd. Tha nas lugha na millean daoine le Gàidhlig anns an saoghal mòr. Seo comas: tha ceithir millean daoine is leth ann am Meall Bùirn fhèin.

Mur a tha sibh ann am Meall Bùirn, nise, tha Gàidhlig an-seo bho chionn fhada. Bidh sinn a’ seinn an 7mh Giblean aig eaglais far an robh daoine le Gàidhlig bho chionn ceud bliadhna ‘us leth!

Agus carson a tha mi a’ sgrìobhadh sin an-nis?

Latha na #Gàidhlig sona dhaibh uile!

Here’s Something Infuriating…

Our lovely local member Rebekha Sharkie asked a question at Question Time yesterday. That’s not the infuriating thing. Enough nice things cannot be said about Rebekha, who lives just a few towns over from me and who attended every single one of the community meetings we had in January about the blackout in December. In fact, those community meetings are where she was “commissioned” to ask this very question.

Here’s her question:

And here’s the PM’s… well, I’m not going to call it an “answer”:

Okay, so

(a) the question wasn’t even about the blackout, let alone the renewable power problem about which the blackout had nothing to do. The one in September, perhaps, but the December one was entirely down to trees (and Stobie poles!) falling on the lines, and repair crews taking up to five days to respond. (Which also meant that the CFS couldn’t clear the trees, which they’re capable of, because they hadn’t been told if there was a current in the lines or not, but that’s another matter). Yes, the PM makes a reasonable point about there maybe being some hypocrisy in drawing increasing non-renewable power from Victoria while saying that we’re entirely “green”, but if he knew even Thing One about either of the blackouts, he would know that wasn’t even relevant.

(b) who cares about what Labour did several years ago? The question is what are you, the current national leader, going to do to make things better now? How are you going to safeguard our telecommunications during bushfire season? Don’t deflect the blame. We’re not looking to place blame. We’re looking to fix it, but apparently you’re not willing to help with that.

(c) the question wasn’t about mobile phone black-spots, although that’s closer than his first reply. The fact is, most of the Hills does have mobile phone access. A little dodgy at times in valleys, but it’s there. Just, you know, not when the power’s been out for several days and the relay towers only have battery back-up for between four and eight hours. Something Rebekha was cut off from saying was that, when the NBN rolls out (and supercedes the current coverage, becoming the only telecommunications network in the area), their back-up lasts for only three hours. What we need is LONGER battery back-up, perhaps even generators on the relay towers, not SHORTER.

(d) it’s not a matter of “the lights going out in Mayo”. As I’ve said, we don’t care if the lights go out. Not in summer, when we have sixteen or more hours of really quite decent light every day. What we do care about is not having any water or sewage. And what we really, really worry about is not having any contact with the outside world at a time of year when a bushfire could run through the area and burn everything to the ground – including us, if we don’t have any way of knowing that it’s there and we have to evacuate.

So, what can I say? Not much more, really, except “poor Rebekha”. I wish there was some way of posting over all the comforting hugs her constituents want to give her right now.

Also… I didn’t mind the PM, inasmuch as I didn’t really think he was either good or bad, just as ineffective as the last dozen we’ve had since I finished primary school. But now… now I really don’t like him.

Gaoidhealg

I’ve used the Middle Irish name for the language for a reason. Is it called “Gaeilge” or “Gaidhlig” or “Gaelg” or “Gaoileann”? Let’s settle for this instead.

Well, last weekend, I went to Canberra (and yes, it’s taken me a week to blog about it).

In fact, I should say, Aig deireadh an t-seachdain seo falbh, chaidh mi gu Chanberra.

Or, perhaps, Ag an deireadh seachtaine seo caite, chuaigh mé go dtí Canberra.

I went to Canberra for the Scoil Teanga, or Irish Language School. And I sang at a reception held by the Irish Ambassador to Australia. With no preparation whatsoever. But no-one believed that.

Seo ceist: Cén fáth a bhfuil tú ag an Scoil Teanga?

Deagh chèist. Uill… níl mi ag labhairt móran Gaeilge Albainn i Adelaide agus bha doigh liom nach bhfuill Gaeilge Éireann chomh difriúil.

Speaking Irish is… How to find an analogy?

Speaking Irish as a Gaelic-speaker is like visiting Christchurch as someone from Adelaide. It’s all very familiar, and you can mostly find your way around, but it’s just enough different to get you lost, even though when you look at a map you recognise everything.

And most of it’s missing.

Seriously, where are all the letters in Irish?

Here are some things I learnt:

ALBAINN ÉIREANN
“ao” = /ə:/ “ao” = /e:/
“aoi” = /aɪ/ “aoi” = /wi:/
“à” = /ɑ:/ “á” – /ɔ:/
emphasis = air a’ chiad syllable emphasis = far a bheil an fada
N às deidh T, M, C = /r/ N às deidh T, M, C = /n/
“sibh” do mòran daoine AGUS do gach duine nas sine “sibh” NI ACH do mòran daoine
“tha” “tá”
“chan eil” “níl”
riaghaltan “BUMP”, m.e.:

“dùthaich nam bò”

úrú, m.e.:

“duthaich na mbó”

“chd” = /xk/ “cht” = /xt/
“bha” agus “mha” = /v/ aig tòiseach ‘us dèireadh, /w/ ‘s a mheadhan “bha” agus “mha” = /w/ gach uair
“oidhche” = /ɤɪxɛ/ “oíche” = /i:hɛ/
“bruidhinn” “labhairt”
“ionnsachadh” “foghlam”
“tha mi a’ smaoineachadh” “is doigh liom”
“is toigh leam” “is maith liom”
“tha mi a’ fuireach ann…” “tá mi i mo chónaí i…”
“chì” “feicfidh”
“ithidh” “iscfidh”

Honestly, having completely understood the first three things on that list beforehand would have fixed about a day of confusion and not understanding anything. Never underestimate just how much three little sound shifts can impede meaning.

Here are some grammar things to prove they’re really the same language, though:

prepositional-pronouns

irregular-past

irregular-present

irregular-future

irregular-command

irregular-conditional

bi

dean

Irish is a confusing mixture of “sounds the same but looks different” and “sounds different but looks the same”. In spelling, a lot of words seem to be missing half or more of their letters, but in other places it seems to have retained letters that Gaelic hasn’t (for example, dhéanfainn for Irish “I would do”, but dhèanainn for Gaelic “I would do”, although they’re pronounced exactly the same; or chomh for “so” instead of cho in Gaelic).

Raghnaid’s hot tip for the Irish language: Find someone from Donegal. If people aren’t understanding you, tell it to someone from Donegal and get them to translate it. If you can’t understand other people, find someone from Donegal and get them to repeat it.

Overall, I think if you’re thinking about learning a Goidelic language and can’t decide which one, go with the Scottish version. It’s not just because I’m biased, too. Here are my reasons:

  1. Gaelic grammar is simpler. That is to say, there are fewer tenses than in Irish. Plus the verbs don’t conjugate, which they do in Irish.
  2. Irish orthography has lost a lot of connections. For example, take the preposition “in”. In Gaelic, it’s ann, and “in the” is anns an, often shortened to ‘s an. In Irish, it’s í, and “in the” is san. As a learner of Gaelic, you can see the connection. As a learner of Irish, it’s just a strangely irregular grammar feature you’ve got to memorise.
  3. Irish has three dialects. Yes, Gaelic has dialects, too, but there’s nowhere near as much variation as there is between the Irish dialects. It did my head in, even as someone who already knew the grammar and could understand the Donegal dialect, to try to keep track of three different ways of pronouncing and phrasing things. It’d be really difficult if it were my first venture into Celtic languages.

On the other hand, here are a few plusses for the Irish dialects:

  1. Irish is much more flexible when it comes to sounds. Goidelic languages have a lot of sounds which are really difficult for English-speakers. Gaelic-speakers will correct you if you don’t manage to make them, but Irish has a larger percentage of learners, I think, so they’re a lot more accepting of not being able to differentiate, for example, between the final sounds of poc, feic, and each.
  2. I’ll concede that Irish spelling, with all its missing letters, probably does make more sense to someone new to the language.
  3. I think there might be fewer prepositions, but I’m not 100% sure on that one.

That first point tripped me up a few times, too. I found it much easier to understand the native speakers than the fluent learners (even the one Gaelscoil-educated woman) and I came to the conclusion by the end that it was probably the sounds. I thought on the first day that Irish simply had fewer sounds than Gaelic, but then I listened to a native speaker from the Conamara speaking and realised that all the sounds are still there.

Overall, it’s both more and less different than I was expecting. It was different in ways I didn’t expect, and the same in some ways I thought were different. Culturally – or, rather, I should clarify that I mean musically – it’s a little different. I sang Is Gàidheal Mi at the concert, and someone said to me afterwards, “That sounded so exotic!” It’s a sort of key that’s fairly familiar to people who know Gaelic music (although a bit more unusual than, for example, Òran na Maighdinn Mhara or Taladh ar Shlanuighear) but apparently something that isn’t there in Irish musical tradition.

There are very few words which are completely different between Ireland and Scotland. Most of the time, if it seems like a different word, it’s probably there, but just less-used or with a different meaning. For example, in Gaelic, “learning” is ag ionnsachadh. In Irish, that means “attacking” (one person said it was awfully poetic that in Gaelic, you “attacked” knowledge), while the Irish word for “learning”, foghlam, is used primarily for “education” in Scotland. Another example is teanga, the Irish word for “language”. Gaelic prefers canan,  but teanga exists, for example in the verb ag eadartheangachadh, or “translating” (literally “between-language-ing”). In Gaelic, “walking” is a’ coiseachd, a word which isn’t used in Irish but is understood, as it is literally “foot-ing”. In Ireland, it’s siul, which exists in Scotland as siubhail, but means something more like “stroll”.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve experienced some level of racism from Irish people, so I was a bit worried about that, but aside from one incident on the first night (who decided a political/historical lecture by a local university professor was a good idea? NEVER talk about politics and/or English people around someone from Ireland) I got on quite well with everyone and they accepted me well enough. A number of people were very interested in Gaelic –

I’ve never met a Scottish Gaelic speaker before! I’ve always wondered about the language.” (A few people said words to that effect, but seriously? There are about 75 000 of us in the world, 1500 in Australia, and I’ve seen TG4 documentaries on YouTube so why haven’t you seen something in Gaelic?)

And then, “It’s like looking into the history of Irish!” (Yup, that’s what happens when you put all the letters back in. That was said to me by someone looking at a song book I had with me. But that said, we did read a poem in class in “Ye Olde Irishe”, and that was much easier for me as it had most of the letters I expected… although no Hs, since it was from back when they were a dot on top of the letter).

I really don’t think it’s justified to call Irish and Gaelic separate languages, particularly after having met a few Donegal Irish speakers. It’s an accent and a few figures of speech, that’s all. Oh, and a couple of spelling reforms. As far as I’m concerned, if I can be an Australian and understand someone from Ireland speaking English, Irish-speakers should be able to understand me speaking Gaelic. That’s the level of difference there is.

Oh, and if anyone can fill in any of the gaps on those tables, it would be much appreciated.

The Australian and British Education Systems

Three or four years ago, I had a teenage rant in response to something on some expat forums, and it became my most successful post. I’m constantly getting comments and questions from people who, for some reason, think I’m an expert on education system comparison and want advice.

Some of the information on that post is now outdated, and most of it was unclear to begin with. It wasn’t meant to be an informative post, just a rant! The main point of the post was that the Australian and English systems are really very similar. One is not really better than the other (although a couple of rankings would say that the Australian system is actually better.

If you want to find out about the education systems or how the curriculum compares, the best thing to do would be to look at the curriculums for yourself.

If you want to compare a couple of schools, contact those schools directly.

Here is a table comparing the three systems (Australia, England/Wales/NI, and Scotland) in terms of school years, curriculum phases, certificates, and so on:

school-system-comparison-table

Click to enlarge, of course. And here are links for the curriculums themselves:

Australian National Curriculum

British National Curriculum

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

Here are the links for the overseeing institutions:

Education Scotland / Foghlam Alba

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)

Here are some school comparison and finder sites:

The Good Schools Guide (UK)

The Good Schools Guide (Australia)

The Australian Schools Directory

My School (Australia)

And finally, here are the online educational games, support materials, and websites:

BBC Bitesize

Learning Scotland

ABC Splash

So, if you have a problem or a question:

Compare the curriculums, visit the school comparison sites, ask the schools.

If you really, for whatever strange reason, decide you want to ask my opinion on something I really have no right to have an opinion on, here’s what I’m going to say:

Australia, New Zealand, and all the UK are all well within the top 20 education systems in the world, and more than that, all the systems are fairly closely aligned from either years of contact or a similar origin.

In primary school, there’s really not going to be much difference between the countries – in fact, you’ll probably find more difference between two schools in the same country than between two schools in different countries. Your main problem’s probably going to be dealing with the different school years between the northern and southern hemispheres.

In high school or secondary school, it’s better to change sooner rather than later, so that you or your child can be settled into a school before beginning the leaving certificates, which do actually vary quite a bit in terms of composition and requirements between the three countries, and even within Australia.

In university, there’s more difference between Scotland and England than between either with Australia, but all three countries recognise high school qualifications from each of the others, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re a year or two older when you start.

And again, do your own research. Don’t rely on the opinion of a random not-still-a-teenager expat kid. Check with the curriculum authorities. Take a look at the curriculums yourself. Visit or phone the schools in question to get accurate information about that school. And use your own common sense.


Also, if you want to read about the problems of a bunch of other people who have considered moving from one system to another, as well as my replies to them, check out the original post.