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  5. I have a confession;


I have a confession;

I'm actually a native Gaelic speaker. My family are from Skye and it's the language that was spoken to me by grandparents and elderly relatives as a child. I speak it just fine, just as well as English if not better sometimes depending on how many drams I've had.

But in modern Scotland there was never any need for a child living in Glasgow to write at all, so I never learned how to write or read. I'm illiterate, which is a pretty embarrassing and confusing thing to be as university educated woman.

It's sort of been a shameful little secret I've had my whole life. My papa, whose a very strict little man who refuses to speak English (he can, he just won't), once asked me to go shopping for him, being elderly, but obviously the list he gave me was written in Gaelic.

I was too embarrassed to ask him to translate for me, so I spent about an hour walking around Portree until I got the good sense just to use google translate and hope for the best.

So over my adult life I've sort of went back and forth about what to do. I could teach myself to read and write but that sort of requires delving into language learning tools and masquerading as a non-native speaker. So inevitably I'd start some sort of course and quit because of how strange it felt and then rinse repeat.

I started using Duolingo on and off years ago to keep up with my Spanish and Mandarin, as well as dabbling in French. So when I was told they were bringing out a Scottish Gaelic course, I was interested, but then I got hit with that thought again;

Isn't that embarrassing? Inevitably there will be someone from London or New York or something who now can write your language better than you can.

But it's not embarrassing. It wasn't my fault I wasn't taught how to read or write. The whole reason the language is dying out in the first place is because people haven't taken the time to teach their children.

So really, my point is; I'm sure there's got to be some other Scots out there in a similar situation to mine. Or more broadly just any native peoples in general who haven't fully had the chance to grasp their native language for whatever reason. Don't feel embarrassed. I know it's easy to. Just give it your best and once it's all said and done, don't forget that culture. Pass it on to your kids.

November 29, 2019



I understand absolutely. I'm only learning Gaelic, but my grandparents were fluent Gaelic speakers, and my mum spoke a little to me when I was small. There was a certain amount of incidental Gaelic (and Scots) in my vocabulary, none of which I'd be capable of reading or writing. Some of it I've managed to work out, thanks to Google translate and some guesswork around spelling. However, there are still a number of words and phrases that I can only use verbally. I do feel embarrassed about that!

My mum has always had a complicated relationship to Gaelic, and I've always felt sad that she never felt that she wanted to speak it with me properly when I was little. Funnily enough, she's very proud of the fact that I've been learning Welsh since moving to Cardiff: I am hoping that she'll be proud of me learning Gaelic here too.


I find it interesting that some words in Scots came from Gaelic. Partan (crab) is one example. Quite a few Gaelic words also came from Scandinavian. (Old Norse) Compare scarbh (Gaelic for cormorant) with skarv in Norwegian and Swedish.

Breeks and Trousers both came from Gaelic words briogais and truibhas respectively.


The irony of being a well-educated, well-read and illiterate person is part of who I am. I grew up bilingual in English and Bengali but never really learnt how to read Bengali. Even to this day, I struggle with writing Bengali and that is mostly because I have no use for the language except talking to other native speakers. My education was partly to blame for creating a situation in which I could get by without knowing Bengali.

In some ways this is a blessing in disguise. I know what it is like to be illiterate despite being university educated. Educated people often forget that they learnt how to speak their first language long before they were taught the alphabet and this holds them back when they start learning a new language. I'm currently learning Russian and have picked up many words I still cannot spell, but that doesn't bother me at all.

I read something in Bengali each day so that I don't forget the alphabet, but I've come to accept that my Bengali will never be as good as my English no matter how hard I try. There is also this part of me that rebels against learning Bengali simply because I was born into a Bengali family. Your best or dominant language is the language you use the most and feel most comfortable in, and in my case that is English.


Not at all! For me Gaelic has been a language that has surrounded me living in the far north of Scotland... so much so my name is used in the lessons! I have even gone so far to compete in the national mòd and singing on TV in Gaelic - but for the most part I have never understood fully what I've been singing about and never been able to read but I have always wanted to. I hope this course now helps to bridge the gap in your understanding, it seems like a fantastic course so far!


Then take the step and make Gàidhlig a main part of your life, as it was your ancestors'! People like you are key to the recovery of the language. Go for it, Elantair!


At least you've had the chance to practice your Gaelic. I am in the same boat, but having lived most of my life in Australia my Gaelic is now very rusty. I can still understand a lot but speaking it is a problem. As the shepherd said "I know another like you" and he pointed to his dog. A lot of words are coming back to me though. Spelling has never been my best friend in Gaelic, and the accents are a nightmare (na sràcan!)


How does one walk around an hour in Portree without ending up somewhere completely different? ;)

Don't mean to take over your thread, I am not in the situation you describe, but I think I can imagine how that feels. Just nice to read someone with a connection to Portree...

EDIT: Been reading that first post over and over again. I think I judged way too quickly before. It was more than just a bit bold and thoughtless to assume I could really imagine what your situation feels like. Sorry for that.

I am glad that you found a way to accept and improve your situation, and I think your post could be really motivating to anyone else having that problem.

Wishing you all the best with another lingot! ;)


^^ It's okay. Portree isn't the biggest place so walking in a straight line for an hour, you'd absolutely end up somewhere totally different. I however was walking in circles, just killing time rather than actually setting a destination and going there.


We've been to Portree twice, and although there are probably nicer and less crowded places on Skye, we kind of feel at home there, however strange that may sound. It's the island and its people that caught us, impressing with the beauty of the landscape as well as with the kindness of its inhabitants.


As a Scot who is not a native Gaelic speaker, I have grown up trying to learn the language, and have found a number of different media that help me to learn. For me, nothing compares to actually being able to speak to a native speaker, and I am fortunate enough to learn with a lady from Lewis, here in western Canada. This course is really useful, but for learning to read and write Gaelic, you might find the LearnGaelic website and the Teach Yourself Gaelic book very useful. Never be ashamed of trying to fill in a gap in your knowledge - it wasn't your fault you never got a chance to learn previously.


My father, who learned English at school, is in a similar situation. He was made to take Latin and Greek at school while his peers took Gaelic, so he never had occasion to read or write very much in Gaelic, and has no confidence in this despite being a totally native speaker (he's in his 80s now). He was asking me about Duolingo to help him improve!


Here's a lingot for your dad! I'm an American, just short of 70 and love Duolingo! Learning this totally unique language is like solving puzzles. I'm sure I've beat back Alzheimer's at least a few months!!


Thank you for sharing your story. My papa's family were from Luing but moved to Broxburn after the slate quarries flooded. His mother disapproved of Gaelic (and nearly everything else!) and so he had relatively little Gaelic himself. He shared a few words with my dad and with me when I was little and I have always wanted to learn but living in the South West of England has made it virtually impossible but Duo Lingo has made it virtually possible :)


Thank you, YoSocrates, for that heartening story!


When another language has been imposed in all formal contexts, native speakers often don't become literate, or fully literate, in their own language. So, understandable with Gaelic (but not Bengali! :-). It may be hard to get used to new spelling and some vocabulary. But everyone should be able to enjoy and use their language. I've met a couple of young people who were raised speaking Irish in the United States but never really encountered the written language. It was a strange experience for them to finally take courses in Irish. Best of luck. Gura math a thèid leat!

[deactivated user]

    Your situation is common in so many parts of the world. Many a language in many a country has remained oral despite them having a written form, simply due to a lack of mother tongue education rights or access (e.g. Kurdish in Turkey, Aboriginal languages in Canada like Cree and Inuktitut, Occitan in France, etc.). That said, the language needs also to be passed on as a mother tongue. For Gaelic to live, education and TV sadly aren't enough. Native speakers need to raise new native speakers. The dialects need to be passed on. Children need to grow up thinking and dreaming in Gaelic... That can only be left up to communities.


    Nothing embarrassing about it. It used to be illegal to speak or write anything other than English. As you said, learn it and pass it over to your children. It's your precious heritage. I'm Greek and simply learning Scottish Gaelic and Welsh because of their beauty.


    It's an interesting point. I realised when I was at university that I was functionally illiterate in Scots, despite having grown up understanding it perfectly and speaking it on occasion. If I encounter written Scots I have to sound out every word laboriously, phonetically, to figure it out. And yet I have encountered one or two writers whose Scots I can read quite easily. It's a funny thing.


    At least Scots is so phonetic! I find that I can usually learn new things in Scots if I can hear it and read it simultaneously, based on my knowledge of English, and the Scots I already know. I learned just a handful of words and then built on it in this fashion, mostly with songs.


    Very honest post and thanks for that. I am doing both speaking and writing from scratch. We will all get there in time.


    We have the same problem in the Basque Country with euskera. Younger generations can read and write in euskera because it is now compulsory in all schools in the Basque Country (the only way to save a language), but my parents can't read or write in their own language because euskera was forbidden in schools, all was in Spanish or French. But we have specific courses for illiterate euskera speakers, "alphabetization courses", where people who have euskera as their mother tongue can learn to read and write it. I'm sure there must be something like that in Scotland! Ask in gaelic schools, you'll probably find what you are looking for. Good luck!


    I have wanted to learn gaelic since I was in my teens. I was born in Scotland, Glasgow area, my family moved to canada when i was six. My family knew Slainte! and Failte and that was about it. My first real introduction to Gaelic was seeing folk singers from Nova Scotia on TV.

    My wife is Polish (next on my Duolingo plan), we are touring Scotland in May with planned stops in Dun eideann, Inbhir nis, Skye, and Glaschu and points in between. One reason I started Duolingo was to learn as much as possible before this trip. One of my sons, who is not coming with us, has joined Duolingo to learn Gealic with me, to help keep me motivated. This hard on him as he cant roll and "R" or get his 'fliuch' or 'duilich' to sound right but he is trying! I can barely wait to mangle the langauge on home soil. :) Tioraigh an-diugh!


    I am American, but my forefathers were Scottish. I have wanted to learn gaelic and go to Scotland for years. Now i am learning, and hopefully i can go to Scotland some day. Tioraidh a-nis!


    I was the same, my father wasfluent in Gaelic. When he spoke to me I would not reply in Gaelic. He said I was like the sheepdog, understood every word but. ever spoke back.


    Mo thruaigh! How sad...


    There's someone who was in my local learners group who had that issue. This is a chance for you to catch up.


    I'm a native Slovak speaker who grew up in America. I never went to a Slovak school and used to be very embarassed when I had to write something. Now, I am just a little embarassed because I just don't care about making mistakes, considering I never learned at school.


    a Lot of us are coming in completely blind, you at least have a bit of start, lets all keep at it till we all can read it easy !


    I'm new to Gaelic, thus I don't know if this will help you. But for me it helped a lot to go through these videos showing the connection between the sounds and the spelling: https://learngaelic.net/sounds/index.jsp


    Never be embarassed not being able to read or write in Gaelic, I grew up in the Western Isles and did Gaelic Medium Education and there are even things today they're changing with writing and spelling - Gaelic reading and writing is realtively new to be honest, my uncle is extremely fluent in Gaelic but can barely read/write in it, and I've been reading a Gaelic book which wasn't actually in writing in its first form but audio recorded and then turned into a book (with Gaelic which is slightly different to today). I felt quite ashamed a year ago when i realised how much I actually quite liked the language and culture so I went back to taking it in my last year of secondary school. Like you said don't feel embarassed or scared of getting it wrong just try your best :)


    I was moved by your story. Your problem is the opposite of learners, who may know the grammar, but have difficulty understanding native speakers. Both communities could recognise their strengths and weaknesses, for the long term well-being of the language.


    Don't be too discouraged. If you can read English you can fairly quickly learn to read many other languages such as French or German, even though you do not understand what you are reading. The same can be said for Gaelic. Many learners have learned to read Gaelic as adults although not necessarily understanding everything they read, whereas you have a certain advantage in only having to learn to read it. It won't take long.

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