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Irish Language learners share their stories and tips to become more fluent

For many, learning a new language can be a lifelong journey. But for those who learned the Irish language in school, it’s quite often a situation where they are rediscovering the language.

Everyone’s journey is different. Here are just some fascinating experiences that Irish language learners have had with a few great tips for good measure.

Niamh’s Story

‘I’ve always loved languages. At Junior Cert, I studied Irish, English, French, German and Latin, and I did well in all of them. When I left school, there was less of a structured space for me to speak any of these languages, and so they mostly fell out of use. I’ll admit that of all of the languages I spoke, I saw the least use for Irish in a day-to-day context.’

‘When I started working, I worked with many people for whom English was their second language. In some cases, I was the only Irish person on the team, and so I would be asked to explain why the language was on signs but was never spoken.’

‘In some cases, I had colleagues who were excited that their kids were learning Irish in school – they would have a third language! I spent two years working in America, and while it was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot about myself and about the world, I dearly missed Ireland. I promised myself that when we returned home, I would rekindle my language. There are a couple of things that helped me get to where I am, but the biggest has been finding an opportunity to speak what Irish I had every day.’

‘At first, this was Twitter; Gaeilge Twitter is – for the most part – super supportive of anyone making an effort. I would sprinkle a cúpla focal here and there in my tweets, and if I were brave, I’d go for a whole sentence. Later on, I started using Discord – there’s a server which was set up by Úna-Minh which is designed to give people the chance to speak Irish in a supportive environment, but which isn’t as random as yelling into the void of Twitter.

‘This online experience gave me the confidence to attend a couple of Pop-Up-Gaeltachtaí, where I realised that there’s a big difference between talking Gaeilge online and talking in person.’

‘Online, I’m often checking the dictionary to make sure I have the Tuiseal Ginideach correct. In-person, I can have the craic even if my grammar isn’t perfect. The last thing that helped me grow my Irish was deciding to speak it to my daughter.

‘I started off with a few stock phrases (“An bhfuil bainne nó clúidín nua uait?”), but simply by speaking the language every day, and adding a new word or phrase here and there, now I’m much more comfortable with the language. My daughter is 14 months old, and she understands both Irish and English, and my wife has also been picking up Irish as we’ve been going along. So I guess my tip would be “beatha teanga í a labhairt” because speaking Irish every day has certainly brought it to life for me.’


Stephen’s Story:

‘I did Irish in school 1973-1986 Leaving Certificate pass C. Got As in chemistry and physics went to UCD and my Irish rotted. Moved to Italy learned Italian, then Canada, finally Holland in 2001. I learned Dutch and French and my sister Barbara was like ‘shame on you for not learning Irish!’.

‘I was ‘it is no use to me’ (I KNOW, I KNOW). She bought me Gaeilge Gan Stró and I LOVED IT!’

‘I visited the Gaeltacht in 2013 (An Cheathrú Rua) and since then start buying Irish language books like Peig and Scothscéalta. I have set up a pop-up Gaeltacht here and we are going from strength to strength. Even Raidió na Life interviewed me!’

‘My method for learning languages is to A) have a goal. For me it was a weekend in the Gaeltacht and not speaking English at least for that weekend and B) ‘rinse and repeat’ learning. Do lessons 1-5 then revise, then 1-10 revise, 1-15 revise again, 1-20 revise.’

‘Watch TG4, buy DVDs, read, speak and don’t be afraid to make a complete twat out of yourself. In 2019 I finally found that I could converse in Kerry when ordering whiskey in O’Flaherty’s and speaking to Fergus who saw me as a local when I returned later that year. I also hired a bike there all through Irish. I am a convert!’

Darren’s Story:

‘I learned Irish through school, but I never really enjoyed it. It wasn’t the language itself, but it was the subject. In the same way, I would have given my left arm to never do Maths or French again! That said, I have always had a love for the language. There is a poetic quality to it, that unleashes hidden beauty in its description of the world around us and it’s a historical archive of the people who lived and died through it.’

‘Once I left school, like many, the language fell onto the wayside as my busy career took over but as my children came along, I knew I wanted them to be bilingual – for the 1000s of beneficial reasons but to be able to connect to the language of our heritage.’

‘From that decision, I said I wouldn’t ask them to learn something I wasn’t willing to do too and wanted to be able to speak to them in Irish – and also had a nightmare realisation of sleepovers one day with 10 plus kids in my sitting room speaking a language I couldn’t!. So, with those thoughts, I dusted down the files in my brain and restarted learning Irish.’

‘Here are some of the things that helped me. The first and most important is to use the language every day’

‘I speak to my kids and wife daily using as much Irish as much as possible. That doesn’t mean you need to be fluent at all. It means you start with simple phrases related to a part of the days. Example, say ‘hello’ in the morning, say ‘goodbye’, say ‘I love you’. Ask questions “Are you hungry?”’ “Do you want a drink?”.

‘They don’t have to speak back, just understand at the start and over time you will see them reply back. My kids playing with their cousins out in the garden and randomly speaking Irish or my 3-year-old shouting “Daddy, féach ar seo! Bóín Dé” with no prompt is heartwarming!’

‘While this might seem like you are teaching the kids and not learning, you are. It helps you to discover new phrases. You talk in the language and then hit a wall “How do I say that?” Then you go figure it out. We use Irish when we are out from swimming and to the shops. This has built my vocab up to no end and my kids too. It’s important for me that my kids see Irish as a normal part of our family and community. Not a subject to be learned.’

Foclóir.ie and Teanglann.ie are invaluable. You can look up words and hear how they sound as well as get examples of the phrases used and then see these across tenses. TG4 is nothing short of amazing. I have found watching cartoons with the kids, Dot and Is Mise jump to mind, which use Irish in a natural, well-enunciated way that is easy to follow. They also have subtitles in Irish so you can read as you hear, putting the sounds to the words. The documentaries have the same impact, but of course the Irish is more advanced, using vocab and grammar missed in the younger audience focused shows.

‘There are lots of books but I found Gaeilge Gan Stró series to be great starting points again with soundtracks of all the sounds. Another thing was reading to the kids in Irish at bedtime. We have a massive stocked booked shelf of Irish language books for kids, all of which have helped me and the kids explain our understanding and range in the language.

‘The most important thing though is practice. You need to be speaking to people. To this end, I set up a monthly Lón as Gaeilge in work and discovered I work with a ton of speakers either from Gaelscoilanna or just passionate Irish speakers. This is great as you again hear people speaking about day to day topics as you would in English but you can also try out your skills. Don’t worry about “getting it right” all the time. ‘

‘I often have to code-switch and the folks know me well enough that I often ask them – ‘How’d I say that correctly?’.

I also sought out groups in the area who set up lessons for adults and coffee mornings. I love just getting a chance to be around speakers who I can practice with and who can help me expand my abilities. Often these things can be hard to find outside of the bigger cities like Dublin.

You need to ask around and look in places like parish halls for notices for events and lessons – these often won’t be published online.

Lastly, twitter has been great to meet people who can help me with a small question and just to see the language in use but be careful as 240 characters mean some speakers will be forced to make grammar changes that confident speakers will have no issue understand but might teach you bad habits.

PSA: Don’t use Google Translate for more than a tool to help you figure out things out but do the hard work and you’ll remember it much better.

Judith’s story:

‘I went to an integrated primary school in NI, so Irish wasn’t taught at all, but one of the teachers had Irish and started running an Irish class after school, so that was my first exposure to it. ‘

‘The teacher translated my name to Síle, which I’m grand with now, but this was back when the Sheila’s wheels adverts were running, so one of my mates used to sing the theme tune at me to wind me up!’

‘So for years, all the Irish I could remember was ‘Dia duit’, ‘cad é mar atá tú?’ and the numbers 1-9. I was disappointed that Irish wasn’t a choice in my secondary school, so I didn’t actually get to start learning it until about 4 years ago when I stumbled across the Now You’re Talking series on YouTube. I made my way through the first dozen episodes or so until it started going over my head.

‘I tried reinforcing it with Duolingo, but this is back when Irish Duo’s audio was weak, so I just lost interest in it. I was following as many Irish accounts on twitter as I could, but I never really picked much up. About 2 years ago I came across an ad for Fáilte ar líne’s courses on Futurelearn and started those.

‘I think that’s about when it all started to actually kick into gear for me, because I was being made to practice it, and I was having fun piecing together sentences from example sentences on foclóir.ie. After that I was able to get more involved in Irish-language social media scene, I read tweets and occasionally talked to people – albeit very slowly piecing my sentences together.’

‘Once I had a decent amount of vocab, I picked up a grammar book and worked through the exercises, and that did bring me up another level. That’s also the only time I’ve spent money learning it – unless you count pints at a pop-up Gaeltacht!. I do keep meaning to attend a class, as nobody I know IRL can speak it, but thus far I’ve yet to actually muster the motivation/social skills to actually do that.’

‘Starting is the most frustrating part. If it feels like a chore, try something different. Get at least two types of learning resource – one for spoken Irish, one for written Irish. Make time to practice writing, whether on social media or just in a notebook, go on to Foclóir.ie, look up words and use the example sentences to give you a guide on the structure. Any words in the sentence you don’t understand you can look up on Teanglann.ie. And while you shouldn’t use English-Irish Google translate, I do find it quite handy to use Irish-English to catch spelling errors after writing a big wall of text.’

Want to indulge in more Irish language content? Check out 13 Irish audiobooks you can listen to for free here.

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I'm a freelance content creator and a journalist who has a strong desire to do as much as possible in the time I've got left on this planet. I got a taste for storytelling when I interned in Storyful many moons ago and since then have worked for places like WorldIrish (now Irish Central), Her.ie and Lonely Planet. I am constantly curious.

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