I’m finally going after my lifelong dream of learning Irish. I had several chances in the past to do this, but I always put it off. It might have been the “Never meet your heroes” principle. I’m very much in the honeymoon phase right now, so we’ll have to see in a few months how I feel. But for the moment, it’s like a warm, loving blanket, albeit with a lot of velar fricatives.
It’s true that languages have individual personalities. Some of those personality traits must be more or less common to all learners of a language, but most, I’m sure, depend upon the learner’s own encounter with the language. English and Romani are, at this point, water for fish. I feel different from one to the other, but I can’t easily see outside myself from within them (if that makes sense). Languages I’ve studied in a sustained way are French, Thai, and Russian, and my relationships with each of them couldn’t be more different.
It always seemed to me like French sits at the cool kids’ table. Being able to speak and read it opens up a lot of doors, but it’s hard to bootstrap your way into it. Unlike English, it reads a whole lot easier than it speaks. Or perhaps I should say that it’s a particularly difficult language to pick up if, like many learners, you associate individual words with textual units. The boundaries between spoken words are of course blurry in any language for the learner, but I’ve never been able to completely shake that problem in French. Plus, French is deeply idiomatic, which, again, is a problem for anyone trying to begin from the ground up. Mind you, all natural languages are idiomatic (every language is an eccentric poet), but, man, you really feel it in French. I’ve gotten better, then worse, then better, and then worse at it over the years. But from those few glimpses inside, I can say that it’s considerably warmer and more vulnerable than its cool, cerebral exterior would suggest.
My study of Thai is the least sustained of the three. I got fairly conversant with it when I lived in Thailand, but that was a decade ago. These days, I’m mostly just that jerk who orders in Thai at a Thai restaurant. I can’t even call myself an intermediary learner anymore. (Note to self: Be more honest about this on your C.V.) Of all the languages I’ve studied, Thai is most like the people who speak it. It’s extremely friendly and welcoming at the onset. But you really have to put in the time and the work to make a close friend (it’s well worth the effort for both Thai friends and the Thai language). Learning basic, functional Thai couldn’t be easier, but there is a massive gulf between basic proficiency and being able to really carry on a conversation in it. Learning a language rarely goes in a steady incline, but that gulf between functionality and conversationality really is massive in Thai. Though this is probably the case for all analytic-tonal languages, it really does seem to be a good fit to the Thai experience.
Russian. Ah Russian. I don’t think my relationship with Russian can be generalized beyond my own experiences. My dad had a lot of Russian friends, and they often stayed with us for extended periods of time when I was growing up. Russia and the Russian language were inexpressibly vast and mysterious in my imagination. There was a darkness there, but it was a deeply attractive darkness. There’s that Orientalist trope of an ancient Tibetan monk in some windy Himalayan monastery who, if you can reach him, will give you all the answers to life’s most profound questions. For me, as a child, it was an Orthodox hermit in a Siberian forest. It was quite natural, then, that in my late teens, when I was often bedridden with an undiagnosed adrenaline disorder, I looked for comfort and wisdom in the later writings of Tolstoy (followed closely by the other canonical 19th century Russian authors). If Tolstoy wasn’t the hermit of my imagination, he certainly wrote a lot about them. I followed Tolstoy into the Russian language, and I was one of the last students at my university to be able to take classes in it. (I would at least hope we get a revival of Russian language courses in our schools as a consolation prize for Trump’s election.)
Russian is notoriously difficult to learn. It’s one of the world’s few languages to become a bonafide lingua franca without losing any of its grammatical complexity. There’s no sugar-coating it. Russian is hard. But it’s got some helpful features, the best of which is Russians themselves. Russian speakers are extremely forgiving of your mistakes. They’ve got a high threshold for comprehending garbled, clumsily pronounced sentences from the Russian learner. Compare this to monolingual English (particularly American) speakers who get confused–and even indignant–at the slightest stumble from an English learner. Second, for its long history as a written language, Russian has a surprisingly phonetic orthography. You can learn to read printed Cyrillic in an afternoon, and distinguishing words in spoken Russian is quite easy, even for the beginner. That creates a lot of opportunities for text-based memorization.
For all of its grandiosity and complexity, Russian often feels quirky. It’s playful and punny. Imagine a tattooed, muscle bound, bad looking dude who’s given to cracking the corniest dad jokes you’ve ever heard, and you’ll get a sense of its disarming contradictions.
And now Irish. In a literal sense, it ought to be my mother tongue. But it’s stranger and more exotic to me than, say, Thai. As an offshoot of a formerly major branch of the Indo-European tree, it really shouldn’t feel as exotic as it does. It may be those stories I remember hearing about the hunger strikers in the H-Blocks speaking it to one another as one of their last acts of rebellion. Or maybe it was just a diasporic nostalgia for life in the Gaeltachts that filled the imagination of my mom’s family.
I’m only about two weeks into it, but I’m beginning to realize that at least some of what’s exotic about Irish is in the grammar itself. Again, it is, in some ways, a standard Indo-European language, complete with some of the moods, declensions, and genders that wouldn’t look out of place in Italian or Persian. But like its Celtic cousin Welsh, Irish follows a Verb-first structure (as opposed to the more common Subject-first structures for IE languages). For practical purposes, this means that it’s much harder to follow along with subtitled television shows (I’m getting my fill of Ros na Rún) than it would be for, say, Spanish or French shows. What’s more, this Verb-first structure almost gives Irish the feel of an agglutinated language, where everything piles onto the main verb. This is different from what speakers of other inflected languages are used to, where the predicate verb is expected to split a sentence, usually into uneven parts. As different as this feels, however, I’m really liking it. For present-progressive sentences, for instance, I can just get that to be verb out of the way and focus on the utterance.
The structure of Irish also, somehow, gives adjectives and adverbs a more animate feel. (Is this why Ireland has produced so many great poets?) Speaking of which, I recently met a familiar stranger: go loer. I’ve been watching all of TG4 programs I can get a hold of on YouTube, and I kept hearing something that sounded an awful lot like “galore” in the context of sentences describing large quantities of things. It’s not surprising that Irish speakers pepper a lot of their speech with English words, such as “so,” “well,” “like,” and that peculiar Irish grammaticalization, “djiinow” (“You know”), and I figured that might be the case with “galore.” I usually have a good grasp of etymologies, particularly for common words such as “galore,” but this was a blind spot, and it bowled me over. It is indeed Irish in origin, from the adverb “go loer.”
I’m not sure why I was so elated to learn about “galore.” Perhaps it’s because there are not too many Irish words in English that aren’t obviously imported nouns (e.g. shamrock and banshee). But it’s also, I think, the first sign that I’m picking out words that aren’t already in my limited vocabulary. Information is beginning to emerge from the noise. That’s one of the most exciting moments in learning a new language. I’m sure the honeymoon phase will be ending in the next couple of months. I’ll ask myself why I’m bothering to learn this slowly dying language when I could be starting on my next book or grading a backlog of papers or, God forbid, keeping in contact with loved ones. But for the moment, I feel like I’m the walkway home. I’ll try to remember “go loer” as the first pebble on that road.