Foreign Languages · Why I'm a Ridiculous Person

Scottish Gaelic Will Be the Death of Me

I am not very good at giving gifts.

See, I am one of those people who believes in practical things, high-quality things. If you say you hate the cold, I want to buy you beautiful mittens for your birthday, or if I notice you always complain that your cutting board is crap, you will shortly receive new one. Ordinary things, things you can use everyday, that is the type of gift I love to give.

I would like to say I’ve never given anyone a cutting board for Christmas, but this would be a lie. ‘Sup, Mum. Sorry ’bout that…

But that’s my trouble. I like practical things, I like receiving practical things, and I recognize that my taste in beauty is not universal. So either I give people exactly what they ask for… or you get the equivalent of socks. Or an Assassin’s Creed bathrobe. Or the kitchen appliance you ALWAYS SAID YOU WANTED. Or… well, you get the idea.

Which is why, last Christmas, after hearing my husband mention again and again that he would love to learn Scottish Gaelic, I did a little research and bought him some books on the subject. All I can say is it sounded like a good idea at the time.

First of all, I would like to say, as someone who not only taught a foreign language for three years, but studied them for close to eight, and has written half a textbook on the subject (no, literally), that every book I bought ended up being utter crap. Rubbish. Terrible.

Their flaws are myriad, but easily summarized. The first one really tried, but was too wordy. The second was written in 1911. And the third, I think they just gave up on. The two days after Christmas 2014, my husband and I tried our best, and then, well, gave up. So much for that idea.

Fast forward to Monday night.

The third book I bought, which I shall not name here because I cannot say anything nice about it, is total junk. And the best (or worst) part about it, is it includes a CD.

Now, you might think this is a marvelous thing, but this is a naive assumption predicated on both your and my basic belief that the author of this piece of utter drivel had a clue how human beings learn language. It is a good assumption. It confirms the better nature of the human race.

It is also wrong.

After a lengthy introduction in the most American accent I have ever heard, the CD launches into Unit 1. If you have ever formally studied a foreign language, you know what comes first: introductions. This book is no different. We were to learn what Mairiad and Thormoid said when they met. Sounds good, right?

Except, the conversation also included greetings, how-are-yous, where-are-you-froms, and other general inquiries. In. One. CD. Track.

Have you ever had the pleasure of tearing your hair out by the fistful? No? You might try it sometime, it’s good fun. Or more fun, at any rate, than listening to that infernal track. Here is what happened when we pushed play:

Mairiad: Ciamar a tha thu? [Kimar a ha oo?]

Thormoid: Tha gu math, thapadh leat. [Ha goo ma, clashing consonants I can’t catch.]

Me, reading along: What the actual fuck.

First of all, when you teach language, you do not rush along in your speech like a merry babbling brook. You slow down, pronounce the T’s, stress the vowels. You also do not drop the bombshell mid-sentence that, guess what, our language changes the spelling of people’s names when we speak!

You do not give a list of how vowels sound without giving examples that illustrate this. And frankly, if we’re going to talk sensible, you don’t put an H after every bloody consonant for no apparent reason. “Bh sounds like V?” WRITE IT WITH V.


After the first go round, husband and I looked at each other and decided another try was in order. After all, this is a completely fresh language. Of course the words were sliding off our brains like bird poo on a wet window; they have nothing to cling onto. We are not the Galapagos Islands yet. That in mind, we re-wound the track and tried again. And it was all good and well until we got to this word: Sgitheanach.

How do you pronounce this word, I hear you ask? You pronounce it Skye-nach [insert flem]. As in, Isle of Skye.


The worst part is, I have no one but myself to blame. I should not have listened to the wistful sighs, should never have credited them as anything more than the sort of “I should take up the trombone again” hummmings of adulthood, made in the comfort of knowing no one in their right mind will actually make you do it.

But no. I bought the book, I brought Gaelic upon our house. And for this I am being punished.

Ciamar a tha thu?

Regretful, that’s how I’m bloody feeling today.

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