The Sound of Learning

This year I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my language skills. I’ve been learning Gaelic off and on for most of the last decade and at the start of the year, that this would be the year that I upgrade my language speaking status from the plateau of Intermediate learner to the slopes of advanced learner. I would develop an accent in Gaelic.

One of the less talked about difficulties of language learning, particularly when it comes to a minority language is the difficult hinterland of being an intermediate learner. There are – relatively speaking – tonnes of resources for beginner learners and increasing amounts of content and literature suitable for the fluent or native speaker of the language. But for the intermediate learner, there are few resources and even less classes, most of which are aimed at younger learners. As it is, I mostly read poetry and comic books in Gaelic. (One day I’m going to track down whoever it was that had the genius idea of translating Tintin and Asterix the Gaul into Gaelic, and buy them a pint.)

As part of my efforts to increase my fluency I’ve been slowly working my way through the backlog of Beag air Bheag, which is a programme expressly aimed at Gaelic learners. There was talk for a while about refocusing the programme on beginner Gaelic learners, because it was felt that the programme was getting too advanced. To my great relief they seem to have tackled this problem by dedicating a section of the programme to beginner learners. The programme as it is – both as a radio show and as a podcast – is one of the few resources that feels aimed at those of us caught in the middle so it would be a great loss.

Speaking of its podcast incarnation, during the season break in the show last year they produced a special mini series revising the Grammar points of the previous series. Oisean a’ Ghràmair is my favourite part of the show, so to have a mini-series dedicated to collecting it together is perfect for me. The series in general, uses examples from Radio nan Gaidheal programs, so unlike the stilted fake conversations of so many language learning courses, instead we have extracts of documentaries, news reports and interviews with poets, musicians, politicians or just people who’ve lived interesting lives. The extracts features colloquialisms, jokes and regional dialect variations, the natural use of the language, full of the nuance and detail that the learner can easily miss or misinterpret. To have those explained – along with their grammatical consistencies and inconsistencies is incredibly helpful. There’s something reassuring having these things treated as an aspect of grammar, as much a key to comprehension as recognising that a particular verb is irregular in certain tenses. There’s something delightful to listening back to the extract with your extra knowledge, and understanding all the things you’d have missed before.

Otherwise, I’ve been indulging my love of languages and linguistics more generally with a couple of excellent podcast series.

I’ve been listening to The World in Words for a while now, having come across it at the height of the Standing Rock protects, via an article about the protest that referenced their episode about the Lakota language outreach work that was going on alongside the protests. (The Standing Rock Sioux’s Other Fight.) The series is a companion piece to PRI’s The World focusing in on language issues, sometimes spun off from issues and stories covered on the parent program others by tangents their reporters have stumbled across while reporting other stories entirely. It mainly focuses on minority languages and diaspora languages, the cultural and political impacts by and on languages and the hows and whys of who speaks which language and where. It’s a really interesting series if you’ve ever wondered about how and why language – particularly minority language – is political.

The episodes are quite short and as such are more short introductions to the issues raised than in depth analysis but the show notes are often extensive and helpful if something piques your interest and leaves you wanting more.

Lingthusiasm is a more recent discovery, and very much more of a podcast about linguistics than about languages. It’s about the mechanics of language, how and why they are constructed and work. It’s actually really useful – in an abstract way – for someone like me who loves learning languages but struggles with a lot of grammar constructions because they don’t actually know what the equivalents are in English. I’m going to learn a lot of useful things as the series progresses.

It’s presented by two linguists, one Canadian – Gretchen McCulloch – and the other Australian – Lauren Gawne – and it’s of the genre of podcasts where you’re essentially listening in on the conversation between two very smart people geeking out about something they both love and are very knowledgeable about. It’s unashamedly geeky and enthusiastic about its topic, but really quite accessible for enthusiastic amateurs or non-specialist listeners.

It’s a lovely, intriguing little podcast and while the production values are a little…amateurish…to start with, it’s worth bearing with them. (For a while the next reward level on their Patreon was ‘lets buy Gretchen a decent mic’ and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being delighted when they made it.) This particular audiophile finds the content well worth the occasional wincing.

I suppose the best review I could give it is this: when I first started listening there were 9 episodes available and I listened to them all – including a 3 and a bit hour special episode – over the course of one weekend.

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