New generation of Gaelic speakers

Na tha a' tachairt ann an saoghal na Gàidhlig agus na pàipearan-naidheachd / What's happening in the Gaelic world and the newspapers
Níall Beag
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Unread postby Níall Beag » Sun Aug 16, 2009 9:03 pm

deardron wrote:The grammar must be trained, like in Latin. It's like scales in music or the handling of the ball in football, something that you can't go further until it's trained to automacy.

Grammar must be taught and learned, but the traditional methods focused on tables, rote drilling and substitution exercises fail precisely because they are like musical scales.

Learning scales is, IMHO, a waste of time to the student of music. A scale encodes a one-dimensional relationship, but music is not built in a linear progression: it's full of jumps and leaps, and each note is related to every other note, not just to its immediate neighbours. There are far more useful relationships that must be learned in order to be able to work out intervals without having to "count out" every intervening note, and the same goes for language -- there are relationships between different conjugations of a verb or different declensions of a noun that need to be learned to obtain a mastery of the language but that aren't presented in a series of one- or two- dimensional verb tables.

You certainly won't perfect your grammar skills without communicating, but unfortunately many many courses based on the communication approach have the same drawback - students are indeed taught to communicate, but where the grammar is concerned their head is still much in a muddle ("Colloquial Scottish Gaelic" is a typical example of that). So there surely has to be a happy medium.

I think there is, but I'll need to sit down and work on my syllabi* before I show my hand... <evil>


*Gaelic and English at the very least, but an introduction to Basque verbs isn't out of the question seeing as I want to learn Basque myself....



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Unread postby deardron » Sun Aug 16, 2009 9:48 pm

Níall Beag wrote:Grammar must be taught and learned, but the traditional methods focused on tables, rote drilling and substitution exercises fail precisely because they are like musical scales.
... There are far more useful relationships that must be learned in order to be able to work out intervals without having to "count out" every intervening note, and the same goes for language -- there are relationships between different conjugations of a verb or different declensions of a noun that need to be learned to obtain a mastery of the language but that aren't presented in a series of one- or two- dimensional verb tables.

I don't agree with that, because you can't avoid a share of rote-drilling in the learning of a language (or music, sport etc). You can't "buy" an art for a cheap price. Obtaining a profound knowledge without excersises is impossible. While learning Gaelic I used first CSG (a "communication" one), then TAIC - that "boring old stuff" with substitution exersises. The second handbook gave me much more control of the language than the former. Now when I read a Gaelic text, I only need a dictionary, most of the grammatic phenomena that I encounter in the text aren't to me a mystery (what it used to be when I was only using CSG).

The history repeated this year when I started learning Greenlandic (a language which is extremely difficult). After having dealt with a number of modern dialogue handbooks I got annoyed with it and thanks God that I managed to get an old handbook with grammar exercises. Once again, I got a good background for my further Greenlandic studies. A lot of tiny things got their explanation that otherwise I would have stayed ignorant of and consequently been making mistakes with.

I fully agree that without the colloquial part the learning of a language is impossible. But I don't see either what's wrong with substitution excersises and stuff like that. A reasonable combination of both policies is IMHO the way to go, on the condition that the grammar is covered satisfactorily. A heavier epmhasise on the colloquial side to the detriment of the grammar (like in many modern handbooks) won't give students a trustful control of the language.

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Unread postby Seonaidh » Sun Aug 16, 2009 11:33 pm

I was using all the complexity of English grammar quite correctly before I even knew there was such a thing as grammar. At one point in my life I studied Latin, with a very grammar-based approach and, while I became reasonably proficient at tronsloting etc. to or from Latin, I was never able to communcate in it.

Other languages I've had dealings with have been presented in a more communication-oriented way, with particular grammatical points arising out of such communication, rather than some vain attempt to formulate communication from a book of grammar.

So, what does Latin mean to me? Stuff like "amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant; amicus, amice, amicum, amici, amico, amico, amici, amici, amicos, amicorum, amicis, amicis". What does Spanish mean to me? Stuff like "Me llamo Juan; habla usted inglès; cuanto cuesta esto" and so on. Really, you need to consider whether it is more useful (a) to know the declension of Gaelic nouns off pat or (b) to make yourself understood and to understand when in a Gaelic environment. In my opinion, if you concentrate on (b), (a) will follow with no appreciable effort.

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Unread postby deardron » Mon Aug 17, 2009 12:52 am

Seonaidh wrote:So, what does Latin mean to me? Stuff like "amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant; amicus, amice, amicum, amici, amico, amico, amici, amici, amicos, amicorum, amicis, amicis". What does Spanish mean to me? Stuff like "Me llamo Juan; habla usted inglès; cuanto cuesta esto" and so on. Really, you need to consider whether it is more useful (a) to know the declension of Gaelic nouns off pat or (b) to make yourself understood and to understand when in a Gaelic environment. In my opinion, if you concentrate on (b), (a) will follow with no appreciable effort.

No, a) won't automatically follow, as my personal experience shows. There's about 10% of adult people (my rough estimation) who can go 'your' way and grasp the grammar 'on the fly' like children do. But the other 90% won't do it without special training. There are so many cases when people have lived in a foreign country and fluently speak the local language, yet still make serious grammatical mistakes and aren't perceived as correct speakers by the locals. Let alone if it's just a school course, where listeners only get a few hours of the language per week.

Do you think that such sophisticated (for an English speaker) things like dative and genetive cases, lenition, augmented prepositions etc. can be taught in a "gaming" way without going into detail where they should be used and where not? My point is that the majority of people won't grasp it correctly. And who needs a mass of bad Gaelic speakers? ;)

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Unread postby Thrissel » Mon Aug 17, 2009 6:43 pm

I think that as an adult you can't do without some grammar. That "amo, amas etc" reminds me of my high school English classes, when they taught us things like pre-future progressive tense for the sake of everyday phrases like "How come...?" OTOH, I've quite a few friends being taught by the "as little grammar as possible" method and as far as I can tell they're going much faster as long as everyday conversation about the usual topics is concerned - but after that their improvements are just as much slower - it seems to me like they're subconsciouosly afraid of attempting anything which would demand leaving the grounds where they feel safe.

I mean, I've only become able to really think in English when, after the high school, I began reading fiction instead of any more classes, but I don't see any of those friends of mine getting there outside of situations in which they are, so to say, "trained". As soon as they have to express something they've never tried before they immediately lapse into simply tr*nsl*t*ng...

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Unread postby GunChleoc » Mon Aug 17, 2009 7:40 pm

I think if you want to learn a language to a high level as an adult, you do need some grammar training as well as lots of opportunities to actually communicate in the language.

Grammar training doesn't necessarily mean learning tables by heart; I personally tend to memorise language chunks rather than rules with Gaelic. e.g. if I try to remember which verb form comes after mura, I just say "mura h-eil" in my head and there it is. If I want to remember if a noun is masculine or feminine, I try to memorise the genitive with the article, since the article is a dead giveaway and I come away with a chunk of useful language to boot.
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Unread postby faoileag » Mon Aug 17, 2009 9:55 pm

It always strikes me as inefficient, surprising and parochial that all mentions of methodology for teaching/learning Gaelic try to reinvent the wheel, or are so anecdotally based, when there are vast amounts of research and results available for the many years and huge numbers and types of learners (incl. those of hugely different language backgrounds) who have learned English as a Foreign or Second language around the world, by various methods and successful hybrids.

The same applies to the writing of textbooks - Gaelic books are way behind the rest of European language teaching books in all sorts of ways, particulary methodology, accessibility, layout and organisation. It's as if none of the authors, editors or academics did any relevant comparative research at all. Good ideas and successful works abound, all ignored.

Secondly, I don't understand why Gaelic, and indeed other languages taught in the UK, don't use the widely accepted multi-language Common European Framework of Reference criteria and scales (covering all skills and a variety of general and specialised contexts) instead of every education board or school more or less having their own unrecognisable and non-comparable level systems. I think SMO missed a boat there.

If the Lewis school owner uses the CEFR criteria, both to inform his syllabus and as a describable outcome, he'll be doing Gaelic in the modern world a big favour.

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Unread postby Níall Beag » Mon Aug 17, 2009 10:01 pm

deardron wrote:I don't agree with that, because you can't avoid a share of rote-drilling in the learning of a language (or music, sport etc).

Language is nothing without meaning. Rote drilling is meaningless, therefore it is not language.

If you look at sport, what exercises do is build up a muscle, a movement or a reflex that will be useful in playing the sport -- if you consider music to be partly a physical skill, you could argue that a scale teaches movements. However, a straight run of adjacent notes is not a useful movement to the musician as it rarely occurs in real music.

The only physical part of language is phonetics, so these are the only things where rote drilling can be excused as useful.

deardon wrote:Obtaining a profound knowledge without excersises is impossible.

There is a difference between "exercises" and "rote drilling". I'm all in favour of exercises, but rote and mechanical exercises will just bore you whereas meaningful exercises make your learning exponential.

deardron wrote:While learning Gaelic I used first CSG (a "communication" one), then TAIC - that "boring old stuff" with substitution exersises. The second handbook gave me much more control of the language than the former. Now when I read a Gaelic text, I only need a dictionary, most of the grammatic phenomena that I encounter in the text aren't to me a mystery (what it used to be when I was only using CSG).

I put it to you that neither Colloquial or TAIC were solely responsible for your learning. I suggest that both are incomplete, and (just like the many learners who do things the other way round and move from rule based learning to topic-led or conversation-based learning) you are merely crediting your success to the second half of your learning.

deardron wrote:I fully agree that without the colloquial part the learning of a language is impossible.
...
A heavier epmhasise on the colloquial side to the detriment of the grammar (like in many modern handbooks) won't give students a trustful control of the language.

You've made a false dichotomy here.

There is no absolute link between language register (colloquial vs formal) and teaching method.

You could write an old style text-book that teaches foreigners to say things like "Y' alright mate?" "Yeah, I'm brill! How's yerself?" and you could equally well write a modern-style course that teaches "Goodday, sir. How do you do?" "I am well, and my thanks for your asking. I trust that you too are well, my good man."

You seem to be suggesting that colloquial language is in some way "ungrammatical". However, the fact that there is regularity in colloquial speech proves that there is a grammar to it, and if the published grammars of the language state that a colloquial usage is incorrect, then the grammar is quite plainly wrong: grammar rules for a living language should only describe what genuinely occurs in a language -- no-one "owns" the language, after all.

deardron wrote:But I don't see either what's wrong with substitution excersises and stuff like that. A reasonable combination of both policies is IMHO the way to go, on the condition that the grammar is covered satisfactorily.

Rather than splitting learning tasks into the meaningless-yet-grammatically-rigorous and meaningful-yet-grammatically-unconstrained, wouldn't it be better to have a single unified set of exercises that were simultaneously meaningful and grammatically rigorous...?



Seonaidh wrote:I was using all the complexity of English grammar quite correctly before I even knew there was such a thing as grammar.

But it took over 6 years of literal full-time study (ie every waking hour of your life) to learn it.

Not only that, but your brain was fundamentally physiologically different back then.

Seonaidh wrote:At one point in my life I studied Latin, with a very grammar-based approach and, while I became reasonably proficient at tronsloting etc. to or from Latin, I was never able to communcate in it.

Other languages I've had dealings with have been presented in a more communication-oriented way, with particular grammatical points arising out of such communication, rather than some vain attempt to formulate communication from a book of grammar.

Ah but consider this:
Your classical education may not have given you an intuitive command of Latin, but it did teach you a lot about the concepts of grammar. As you learn other languages, you will be better placed to "notice" these concepts as you go: a little part of your brain would only need to see a few examples before going "ah, that must be the ablative". I, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea what an "ablative" is and I would have to see thousands upon thousands of examples before really getting the slightest notion of why these nouns look different after those particular words.

Seonaidh wrote:Really, you need to consider whether it is more useful (a) to know the declension of Gaelic nouns off pat or (b) to make yourself understood and to understand when in a Gaelic environment. In my opinion, if you concentrate on (b), (a) will follow with no appreciable effort.

Shenanigans!

(B) is the goal of all language learning. (A) is merely one strategy to get you there.

It's like saying
analogy wrote:Really, you need to consider whether it is more relaxing (a) to be in a car driving to the beach or (b) to be lying on a beach. In my opinion, if you concentrate on (b), (a) will follow with no appreciable effort.

...whereas you should be comparing the efficiency of cars, buses and bikes.

Or maybe:
reductio ad absurdam wrote:Really, you need to consider whether it is better (a) to be eating or (b) to have a full stomach. In my opinion, if you concentrate on (b), (a) will follow with no appreciable effort.

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Unread postby Seonaidh » Mon Aug 17, 2009 10:06 pm

Sin thu fhèin, a Ghunch. "Language chunks".

I dispute very much what Deardron says about "serious grammatical mistakes" from people who've learnt only by conversation etc. Put it this way, a "serious" mistake is one that may well lead to a misunderstanding, so such mistakes are ironed out if you need to use the language to communicate. Yes, many minor mistakes will persist in such speakers, as they do not lead to misunderstanding. As language is about communicating, that backs my view on how best to learn it.

Note that I have NOT said "ignore grammar", just that a grammar-based approach is not the best, if you actually want to communicate in the language. Any approach should have grammar in it: all I'm saying is that it should not be the main focus (as it was with Latin at school). I mean, all languages I've studied have had a "grammar" element to the study, but Latin is the only one to have majored on that approach.

I mean, is it easier to remember some fact like "Noun X is gramatically masculine", or to recall a particular usage of Noun X where the context makes it clear that it is gramatically masculine? Do you remember stuff like "the dative article before singular nouns starting with a vowel is 'an' rather than 'an t-'", or do you just recall an exaple like "às an eilean"?

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Unread postby Níall Beag » Mon Aug 17, 2009 10:46 pm

faoileag wrote:It always strikes me as inefficient, surprising and parochial that all mentions of methodology for teaching/learning Gaelic try to reinvent the wheel, or are so anecdotally based, when there are vast amounts of research and results available for the many years and huge numbers and types of learners (incl. those of hugely different language backgrounds) who have learned English as a Foreign or Second language around the world, by various methods and successful hybrids.

The problem is that all these studies are very heavily biased. Here's something that's worth reading on the matter

The same applies to the writing of textbooks - Gaelic books are way behind the rest of European language teaching books in all sorts of ways, particulary methodology, accessibility, layout and organisation.

Do you really think modern methods are any better than the old ones? If all this research is so effective, why have learner success rates not improved significantly in any language? If the next big thing is better than the last "next big thing", and that was better than the "next big thing" before it, wouldn't we be living in a totally multilingual society by now?

Secondly, I don't understand why Gaelic, and indeed other languages taught in the UK, don't use the widely accepted multi-language Common European Framework of Reference criteria and scales (covering all skills and a variety of general and specialised contexts) instead of every education board or school more or less having their own unrecognisable and non-comparable level systems. I think SMO missed a boat there.

If the Lewis school owner uses the CEFR criteria, both to inform his syllabus and as a describable outcome, he'll be doing Gaelic in the modern world a big favour.

I don't think anyone has ever argued that the CEF exists for pedagogical reasons or has any direct pedagogical benefits, although many have argued against it for pedagogical reasons. In fact, the CEF makes a point of saying that it is not intended to be a syllabus or suggest any particular methodology (much of the criticism says that it fails to stay as syllabus' and methodology-neutral as it aims to be).

The purpose of the CEFR was to allow people to essentially describe their language skills to potential employers in a way that would be understood in any country in Europe, and Gaelic is not a skill that is likely to be in demand outwith the UK.

IMO, the Framework is of no real relevance to the teaching of Gaelic.

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Unread postby akerbeltz » Tue Aug 18, 2009 6:12 pm

Can we keep apart native language acquistion and second language acquistion please? They're totally different. [I shall ignore any comments from Mr F.]

And why is the Gaelic scene eternally lost in the quest for the silver bullet of language teaching? There is no silver bullet, there are different learning types, different motivations and different sought outcomes (from chatter skills to near nativeness). Time to accept that, provide a range of different approaches and resources for each and enable learners to find the path right for them. End of. Let's move on...

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Unread postby Níall Beag » Tue Aug 18, 2009 8:27 pm

Seonaidh wrote:I mean, is it easier to remember some fact like "Noun X is gramatically masculine", or to recall a particular usage of Noun X where the context makes it clear that it is gramatically masculine? Do you remember stuff like "the dative article before singular nouns starting with a vowel is 'an' rather than 'an t-'", or do you just recall an exaple like "às an eilean"?

It's better to not have to remember either an explanation or an example, and instead learn to do it.

But once more, I see exactly the same argument as any time teaching methods are discussed: two sides who say they've done pretty much the same thing, but will still argue about which part of what they do is more important.

The more I study languages, the more I believe that successful learning strategies are more alike than many would care to believe, instead focusing on superficial details that merely serve to distract from the big picture.

"Can't see the wood for the trees" is extremely apt to describe the situation.

"It's larch with a bit of pine."
"It's pine with a bit of larch."

You're merely looking at the same forest from different angles.

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Unread postby deardron » Wed Aug 19, 2009 1:12 am

I guess the discussion is being lead away from its main point. I don't object the interaction in the teaching of a language, I don't require the process of learning to be a boring rote drilling. I simply assert that without profound grammar basis any course is destined to fail. No grammar - no knowledge, only the muddle in the heads.

3 years ago I attended a course in advanced English (my English was OK, I just needed to get a certificate, but most of the other pupils took the course to improve their English). The program was purely conversational, we had a nice gentleman who was a native speaker and talked with us a lot, played us tapes and videos, let us do dialogues etc. etc. But the result was close to zero, people who knew little left the course at the same level. The reason was obvious and is quite rightly formulated by Thrissel above: that kind of training didn't prepare students to unknown situations. Without a good grammar backing they weren't confident with their English. In fact this is the real rote drilling, while the knowledge of grammar gives students a possibility to express themselves in any kinds of linguistic situations.
And it's where exersises come in. Will you learn any of mathematics without exercises? No! You won't get the automatism to feel yourself comfortable on the higher levels of learning. The same applies to language. Just 10 good exercises for each grammatic rule won't make a damage to anyone, but the result will be paying off for the rest of life.
Seonaidh wrote:I dispute very much what Deardron says about "serious grammatical mistakes" from people who've learnt only by conversation etc. Put it this way, a "serious" mistake is one that may well lead to a misunderstanding, so such mistakes are ironed out if you need to use the language to communicate. Yes, many minor mistakes will persist in such speakers, as they do not lead to misunderstanding. As language is about communicating, that backs my view on how best to learn it.

So do you like reading and hearing heaps of bad English? Next time I'll try to paste here a few examples ;)

Seonaidh wrote:I mean, is it easier to remember some fact like "Noun X is gramatically masculine", or to recall a particular usage of Noun X where the context makes it clear that it is gramatically masculine? Do you remember stuff like "the dative article before singular nouns starting with a vowel is 'an' rather than 'an t-'", or do you just recall an exaple like "às an eilean"?

But how will you explain people that they should say 'an t-eilean', 'an t-òran', 'an seòmar', but 'an eucoir', 'an ùidh', 'an t-sìth' without mentioning the word 'gender' (or its analog)??? Without the notion of gender how will you be explaining the agreement of adjectives? That will be the worst edition of the rote drilling, believe me.

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Unread postby akerbeltz » Wed Aug 19, 2009 3:03 am

such mistakes are ironed out if you need to use the language to communicate


Ok, first, this contradicts linguistic research. Exposure and usage, even over decades, do not correlate (automatically) to reaching a state of near-nativeness (speaking well, in less geeky terms). I can point you to the research.

Second, and while I and I'm sure we all lament the fact, many learners do not have anywhere near enough exposure to the language in a communicative context. It's a bit like gyms... we urbanites don't chop wood, herd cattle, run up mountains and bake bread anymore. At best, we take a stroll in the park. Hence the peculiar situation where we go to the gym, a totally artificial situation, to make up intensively for the lack of bears to hunt.

Since most of us don't have a resident native speaker, we have to find other ways of drilling ourselves intensively if we want to get to the top. And in this case, "grammar" is the equivalant of pushing weights... boring, repetitive, makes your arms hurt but there's not really an urban alternative if you want pecs to die for.

And now my mind is somehwere completely else (where IS Brosnan when you need him...) I'm off to bed! :spors:

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Unread postby Fionnlagh » Wed Aug 19, 2009 9:12 am

If the urban environment is not there at present then create one.

There is no lack of native Gaelic speakers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Oban, Fort William, Aberdeen, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Stirling, Perth, Leith, Livingston, Dingwall and many more places.