Saturday, December 21, 2013

Learning Irish: a vague sense of cultural je ne sais quoi

I’ve been thinking about learning Irish again, but I’m not sure there’s any point. In fact I know there’s none. But that’s ok, most things we do are pointless, especially if you’re an IT Project Manager, and in fact scientists have yet to find a point to the universe, so I think we can let Irish off the hook there. Far from being a cause for despair though, I find the utter pointlessness of everything a reason to celebrate. So learn Irish, and enjoy it, and don't worry about the point. There's always a few good reasons for doing so.

I asked my good friend Noel, who grew up in Connemara, Ireland, what he thought about it.

"My mother was a fluent Irish speaker. Did it ever rub off on me? Not a chance. We went almost every weekend to the Gaeltacht (a place where people speak Irish as a first language) where my cousins lived, and everything was in Irish. I found it boring and uncool, but not because of the language. It was more because the people sat around drinking tea, it was usually overcast, and I was told to go outside and kick the ball around. So I’d go outside, kick the ball, and it would disappear behind one of the 2 million rocks scattered throughout south Connemara landscape."

"I hated going. I associated the language with boredom; it was totally useless and pointless and school just reinforced that. Which is why Irish in school has to change. Getting kids to learn a language they'll never need is hard."

Incidentally, years later the bold Noel met a beautiful Quebecoise who eventually became his wife. This time he had no problems learning a language (French), oh no. "I didn’t have much choice in the matter to be honest."



In my own case, well, my Dad was born and bred in Clifden, Connemara, and spoke Irish natively as far as I know, but never much at home to us kids despite us all having to do an hour of it in school every day. I have happy memories of spending a month in the summer of 1981 in the Ballyferriter Gaeltacht, climbing Mount Brandon, cycling around Gallarus and Kilmalkedar, the whole month speaking nothing but Irish under the watchful eye of the Bean an tí.

But that's a long time ago now. I’m ten years out of Ireland this month, and despite having spent the decade prior to that living in Connemara, until recently I hardly gave the language a second thought. But slowly, a language that I had ignored and even disparaged, like we’re trained to do by the way they teach it to us, has become meaningful to me and worth paying attention to. This is partly to do with the fact that I live in Australia, surrounded by non-Australians like myself, all with their own culture and language. Having become fascinated with some of the other languages on offer here - Greek, Spanish and Chinese in particular - I thought it high time I paid a bit more attention to my own linguistic background. But learning a language is a big thing: you better have a plan and some achievable goals, or like so many people half-doing Greek in a night course, you’ll be wasting your time, and come to associate the language, and maybe even yourself, with failure and wasted time and effort.

But what are the arguments for learning Irish?

The argument from utility

This‘ll be quick. So, is being able to speak Irish useful the way French is in Quebec? Let’s hear from the lad Mannion again: "I wish it was, I wish it was more relevant. In Quebec, learning French let me into a new culture, and I have more friends because of it - score! Whereas if I learn Irish I get to speak to - wait - more Irish people."

I doubt if there’s a living person anywhere who thinks learning Irish is "useful" in the usual sense of the word, so we can get that out of the way. It won't allow you deal with people that you couldn't have dealt with in English anyway, so no - it's about as useful as tits on a bull, as we say in Australia.

But the thing is: other than the language you use every day, no language is useful. I’m learning Spanish with some friends here in Brisbane (more below) and I love it. I read novels in Spanish, watch movies while trying to ignore the subtitles, and listen to the Cadena SER Spanish podcast on the way to work. None of this is useful to me whatsoever. I've only ever met one person here who couldn’t really speak English well, so we more or less talk in Spanish, but I only know him through my Spanish class gang so I wouldn’t even be talking about it had I not decided to learn Spanish in the first place. Despite the vast numbers of hispanohablantes, Spanish speakers, in the world I personally have never had to read anything in Spanish I didn’t want to. Yes, it was obviously handy on my recent trip to Spain, but once again one of the reasons for my visit to Barcelona and the Catalunyan countryside was to speak some of the Spanish I’d been learning. And even there, they’d rather you spoke Catalan than Castilian.

Same with Greek. I have an extended Greek-Australian family here, some members of which really only speak Greek, which makes family get-togethers somewhat bewildering for me. In that case surely Greek is useful. Nope. They can all speak as much English as they need to to get on with me, so there’s no need for me to have spent the last year doing Greek night classes, like I did. I did it out of curiosity, out of a love of languages, not because it was in any way useful.

You don’t learn languages because you need to, unless you’re moving to a country whose language you don’t speak. If I was one of those bloggers, great though they are, who have the annoying habit of writing important sentences in bold because they don’t trust their readers to be able to tell the difference between the point and things merely leading to the point, like Scott Hanselman or Jeff Atwood, I would have put that last sentence in bold.

So the utility or lack of it of Irish is completely irrelevant.

The argument from a vague sense of cultural je ne sais quoi

The reason I got to thinking about all of this in the first place is because gradually over the last few years I’ve found myself becoming more and more appreciative of those people I met - Columbians, Greek-Australians, Mexicans, Chinese, Iranians, and Russians who had their own distinct language and culture, and preserved it, to greater or lesser degrees, here in Australia. And sadly, it dawns on me that as an Irishman, I’m not doing the slightest thing to preserve mine, what little I have, given that I didn’t speak Irish day-to-day at home or have a very Gaelic type of upbringing.

This can be hard to convey to people at home, not because they’re amadáns, but because in my experience it can take years before you feel this way. Noel again: “Here in Ireland, there's no need to assert one's Irishness, which is why the language, apart from the fact its on the way out, is not used. I'm not sure how many young people actually speak it in the Gaeltacht regions. Even when I am there, and I try to speak Irish to my cousins, they immediately switch to English because they hear I'm shite.” Sounds like they need to read my last blog post, 'Speaking each others' language'.

“I guess it's part of your cultural identity if you choose make it so, so if you enjoy doing it, take pleasure from it, and it gives you more of a sense of identity, then I'd be all for it. And I suppose in other English-speaking countries, it's hard to get away from the Paddywhackery, all the St. Paddy's Day and Guinness guff, so the language is the only thing that is true.”

(Actually, I’m not sure if that’s true though. That quintessential Irish good-time word, “craic”, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, apparently. It’s actually - gasp! - English: it’s just become a bit paddyfied recently, in the last twenty years. “The word first appeared in English, was translated into Irish and then reintroduced to its parent language as a bogus conduit to Celtic authenticity.” If you watch Ros na Rún, which I’m wont to do of an evening with the tablet on the couch, you’ll hear a lot of borrowed English and American terms, so mother Irish isn’t as virtuous as you might think. She’s been seeing other languages behind our back. I personally regard that as a good sign, as all “living” languages do the same.)


CODasGaeilge! If we had stuff like this instead of struggling through Peig, there'd be no Irish language crisis nowadays. Speaking of which, I wonder if he does any Crysis walkthroughs, as Gaeilge like?

But Noel warns against this cultural, feel-good reason for learning: “I would explore my real reasons for doing it. It has to be more than, well if the Greeks do it, the Latinos do it, then we should have our own too. Of course, in addition to the language there's the great literary history, it'd be cool to read literature in Irish, because meaning is lost and changed when it's translated, and I think there's a huge amount of value in that. So if only for anorak-y historical reasons, and learning the language is a by-product of that, then that would be a valid reason, because translated texts just don't have the same meaning.”

I was going to dismiss this reason as highly unlikely until I remembered that last time I was at home a couple of months ago I did root out a Pádraic Ó Conaire book of stories that my Dad got me years ago. As Noel points out though, quietly studying Irish texts in your bedroom isn’t “wearable on one’s sleeve as much as spouting a cúpla focail”, which is fair enough. I don’t want to be a Celtic poser, but I do want to have a bit of crack with other Irish people, so, again, you have to work out why you’d be going to all the trouble.

Here’s a third reason, one which I actually think may be the strongest yet.

The argument from friendly opportunism

As well as being an excellent source of interest-free microloans, friends can reveal to you hitherto dormant interests, if you let them. When Karl returned from a year in South America, he was singing the joys of Spanish, and remembering that I had studied it years before (I mean it - 1987!), he cajoled me to start speaking it again. So, despite being more than a little rusty, I went along because - hey, hanging out with friends is never a bad idea. Next thing you know we had a Colombian friend, Sandra, to guide us and our Tertulia española had begun. Since then my interest in Spanish has just been getting stronger.

In fact, the Spanish thing kickstarted a personal language renacimiento with me. It was nothing I’d planned, ‘twas totally unexpected. The study of languages had long been swamped by my fascination with the internet, both on a personal level and of course by my need to keep a career in web development going. But here I was, studying the subjunctive and going over the irregular verbs in Spanish. All because Karl had decided to go to El Cono Sur for a year. That’s the best explanation I have for it. Our lives are just a series of contingencies, so as long as you have the flexibility to avail of good opportunities when they arise, you'll never be predictable. I had a ready source of fellow hispanohablantes to hand - we’d meet once a week in a café before work - still do, more or less - and I thought as I sipped on a large flat white listening to Karl and Sandra plan the next camping trip up the Sunshine Coast en español, pues, of all the reasons I can think of to get into a language sure this isn’t a bad one at all.

Another friend, Davida, back in Ireland, has gotten into the ol’ Irish in a big way, so when I met her recently in Dalkey I found that interesting and inspiring. Funnily enough Karl never let it go either, so again, through the friendnet, I found myself being drawn back to stuff I hadn’t touched in 30 years. 30 years!

Because I like making astronomical analogies, I Iiken it to the gravitational slingshot effect that spacecraft get when, like the spacecraft Juno on its way to Jupiter for example, they use a planet’s gravity (in this case, the Earth) to build up momentum and get them where they’re going faster and more efficiently. I’m using the gravity well of my friends’ interest to propel me like a slingshot somewhere I’d probably go anyway, but faster now with their help. This friend-based reason, unlike the utilitarian one, makes much more sense to me. But for some reason, it’s not one that occurs to people when they ask you why you’d want to learn a language.

Wrapping it up

“At that end of the day, who's going to be speaking Irish? You'll just be trying to speak it to your fellow Irish people, to others listening, who are not participating, and they will be just ah, yeah, cool - Irish - but then you'll have converse with them in English. Unless you start a cloister.”

I should probably say that for all my facetiousness about the pointlessness of everything, learning a language takes time, so that matters a lot. There are no shortcuts, no free lunches. There are heuristics, but the thing is you have to learn them, and remember when they don't apply as well as when they do. You hear a lot of stuff about how some people are really “good at languages”. Well, those people have spent a lot of time learning those languages, whatever their innate linguistic ability. I don’t really buy that “good at languages” thing. If you’re interested in them you’ll readily spend the time to learn them, but precious time you will spend, in abundance.

So I’m not really interested in learning Irish to a fluent Gaeltacht-resident level. As if I could anyway. No-one working in IT in Brisbane needs to spend that much time and effort. I do however think it’s worth getting to the stage where you can have a bit of an ol’ chat with some heads in some class (type, or kind, here meaning level of expertise, not an actual organised class with a teacher - we use the word ‘class’ like that in Irish English) of Irish, read some RTÉ Nuacht to a decent level of understanding, watch Ros na Rún and have some idea about why yer one just bought Gaudi’s cafe. Things like that. Rudaí mar sin. You could even watch Battlefield 4 walkthroughs as Gaeilge if you're a gamer.

It's not all or nothing - I intend to learn enough to get me by with others who are like me - Irish people who want to speak a bit of Gaeilge, maybe at an lower intermediate level - that'd do me. Same with any language I'm learning. Enough to get by, no difference there. And there's about as much point in doing Irish as there is doing any other language.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Speaking each others' language

"Some cafés in the central arrondissements - especially the 6th - have more customers reading the International Herald Tribune than Le Monde, and waiters who will immediately address you in English." - "Paris Revealed" by Stephen Clarke.

A weird exchange


"Καλημέρα." (Hello)

"Yes please."

"Ένα φραπέ παρακαλώ." (A frappé please)

"Sugar? Milk?"

"Ναι, με γάλα και λίγο σάχαρη, ευχαριστώ." (Yes, with milk and a little sugar, thanks)

Places frappé on counter. "Three euros fifty please."

Counts out money. "Τρία και πέντε... Ευχαριστώ πολύ." (Three fifty...thanks a lot)

"Thank you."

One person in this exchange is talking Greek, albeit inexpertly, and the other is talking English, albeit inflexibly and robotically, part of their tourist coffee shop routine. I'm the one essaying some Greek, to someone who is presumably a Greek, in Greece. But they insist on replying only in English as if I hadn't bothered. I say presumably, because of course they could actually be Italian, Uzbeki, or even German. In any case surely they can conduct that simple exchange in the language of the country in which we both find ourselves. If I can they can. So why don't they?

If cyberspace is the place where a telephone conversation seems to occur, as the man says, then what’s the space called where you're in this kind of a conversational situation with someone. It deserves to be named. I call this type of exchange Language Crosstalking, where A speaks B-ish to B who responds in A-ish. I don’t know if there’s an official name for it. In any case, it's a strange linguistic and cultural no mans land to find yourself in.

Until recently, I used to feel like I should defer to the hotel receptionist, waiter, or barista who refuses my opening language gambit, obstinately sticking to English in the face of my friendly overtures to speak the local tongue, their tongue. They work here, they know what they're doing, they're seasoned performers, who, if they come across as condescending in their refusal to meet me halfway, are probably simply trying to avoid a misunderstanding. The waiter who can speak 3 or 4 European languages on hearing my poor attempt at Greek knows I could, for instance, mix up λουκάνικα (sausages, loo-KA-ni-ka) with λαχανικά (vegetables, la-ka-ni-KA). They're busy turning over a lot of tables on the square or the main strip, serving Germans and Dutch, English and Irish, Russians and Poles, usually through English (or at least Globish).


The beautiful old town of Nafplio, where an unfortunate incident of crosstalking occurred.

The men who score for Greece

I say 3 or 4 languages but that may be selling some of them short. In their determination to prevent you from enjoying your evening’s perambulation the restaurant Kamaki guys (these are the hustlers who importune you at the boundary of the restaurant, strategically placed beside the menu pedestal) seem to leave no language stone unturned. Once, strolling through Πλατεία Αγίου Μάρκου (St. Mark's Square) in Zakynthos with my family we got hit on by this guy outside an Italian restaurant. "Where are you from, my friend?", walking with us, shaking my hand, the full Monte. I wasn't giving an inch, keeping quiet as he rapidly iterated through the list of nationalities known to visit the island, saying a few words in each language with no success, until he ran out of options and gave up at the edge of the square.

"I'm Irish", I said, thinking I'd schooled that guy in long tail economics. His face lit up. "Conas tá tú? An bhfuil tú go maith?" Jaaayysus, he can speak better Irish than me. I halted our entourage, turned around, we got a table, he got his sale, we ate pizza, we took photos and were happy. I didn't even speak any Irish back to him - the truth is that at this stage when it comes to the cúpla focal I'm rusty as an old Zetor up a Cleggan boreen, and I'd hazard a guess that that those few phrases were about all he knew too - but he had communicated to me metalinguistically, and it worked. We were going to eat somewhere, so why not there.

When you have a couple of choices about which language to use with someone, the one you pick says a lot about your relationship and your intent towards that person. If I try a little Greek in Greece, I might say one thing and mean another:
  • "Ένα φραπέ παρακαλώ." I know you think I'm just one of the tourist herd, but I'm not, I'll have you know.' or
  • "Κάνει ζέστη σήμερα." See? Speaking some Greek here. Respect!

And when they answer in English, it might be:
  • "That’s three euros fifty." I know you think you've made some soulful connection to Greece by learning to speak a few phrases, but you’re just another tourist to me.
  • "Milk? Sugar?" I'm still off my face from partying at Bad Boy's till 4 that I’m not even registering what language you’re speaking. All I know is you want a coffee. Or something.

There are of course cases though where the cross-talking is benign: I don’t mean at all to imply that there can only ever be a mischievous agenda behind it. On our way home from Zakynthos, we stopped for a couple of days in Nafplio, staying at the excellent Hotel Kastello. At breakfast when I tried talking to the friendly owner in Greek - he was asking us what we wanted, coffee, bread, etc - he answered me in English. Έλα φίλος, don’t crosstalk me! When I asked him, in a charming way I swear, why he was answering me in English, he apologised and admitted that like me, he used opportunities like these to improve his English. Even, apparently, if they are talking Greek to him. Fair enough.

Maybe it’s just a phase (transition) you’re going through

Seriously, I think it’s an inevitable stage you have to go through learning a language. I get it here too with my Hispanic amigos. I have enough proficiency to be able to communicate with them alright, but not to understand everything that’s said back at me, so my hispanohablante contertulios (participants in a tertulia, which is an artistic - or in our case, language study - get-together) might switch to English for my benefit, bueno, that’s ok. But now which language are we all speaking? The conversation is an unstable state. But it might actually be metastable, 'next to stable'.

Under normal circumstances, the flow of traffic on a road slows down to maintain a stable state to accommodate the crush of drivers at busy times of the day, or on a stretch where conditions have changed. But apparently a state of 'metastability' can exist where people don't actually have to slow down if everyone keeps their nerve and drives perfectly. Think of Google driverless cars keeping up the maximum allowed speed, packed bumper to bumper. It's a hyperefficient state, but extremely precarious. And it's not to be confused with instability as it could in theory last for a while. Unlikely though, as it's highly sensitive to the slightest change, in which case the whole thing collapses back to a stable state, in the case of traffic probably via a pile-up. Water freezing, and other systems which undergo phase transitions exhibit the same behaviour.

So I liken this language crosstalking to a physical system in a metastable state. It's a wildly silly metaphor, of course, but the fact is that conversations can happen in different states. Most of the time they're stable; both people speaking the same language. But in casual multilingual conversational situations you can find yourself talking in a way whose state is best described as metastable. In theory, if both parties are happy to do so, you can go on crosstalking for a while. But to me at least it feels like you're going further and further out on a limb. It's a land with no laws - if a disagreement starts, for example, which language do we switch to? Or do we just cross-thrash it out? Probably not: any bump or nudge is likely to restore monolingual stability.

And so, as long as I'm the perpetual intermediate stage with Spanish, French, and beginning Greek I can expect to find myself in a lot of these situations. Undaunted, I will press on in the conversation in (crap) Spanish, French, or Greek. And they'll like it. Because I understand conversational metastability can persist. You just have to keep your nerve.