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The Australian who Speaks Irish
Donovan Nagel is moving home to work and explore the world, leaving behind his native Australia to live in South Korea. It's not uncommon for people in his career as a teacher of the English language to travel far and wide. But before he left, Donovan flew halfway across the world – in the opposite direction – to learn another language. Irish.
But why? Irish is not the most widely-used tongue in the world. It offers no obvious advantage to the world traveler like French, German or Chinese might. And why, just before moving to East Asia, would he spend thousands flying to the far side of the planet to practise it?
A Cultural Connection
The seed of Donovan’s Irish adventure started with a paper on Irish gaelscoileanna for his master’s degree. The idea of learning the language stuck with him, and he has a passion for endangered languages. ’It’s something that sort of stirs me,’ he told WorldIrish.
Even though Irish isn’t dead, and is doing 'quite well compared to Scottish Gaelic’, he still felt drawn to learning, promoting and preserving it. As a linguistics graduate, Donovan learned Hebrew, Greek, and three dialects of Arabic; none of which are particularly useful in the daily life of an Australian resident.
‘What fascinated me was that when you learn a dead language, you’re not just learning about a cross-cultural thing, but it’s across time,’ he says. ‘There are thousands of years of history in that language – it’s all bound up with the culture of the people and generations of stories, and vocabulary, and idioms … I just took a fascination with it.’
Connecting with the history of Irish culture has some significance to Donovan, who, like millions across the globe, has Irish ancestors. His family comes from Rockchapel in Co Cork on one side, and Co Antrim on the other. Donovan – who ‘tends to get sick of places after a while’ – even came to live in Ireland for a year’s working holiday, where he worked at the small black-and-gold coffee booth in Cork's train station, which serves hundreds of travellers each week.
But making the return trip was expensive and hectic, especially since he decided to make the journey only one week before he arrived in Dublin. After devoting eight months to learning alone from books, television and audio, Donovan decided to take the leap rather than waste all the hours of study without ever having the chance to speak the language with others.
‘It kind of felt very anti-climactic. I got to this point where I’d done all this work … and I haven’t had a chance to actually use what I’ve done. So I thought, “nah, bugger it, I’m just gettin’ on a plane and going.”’
And he has no regrets.
There’s a 2003 short film called Yu Ming is Ainm Dom (My Name is Yu Ming) which follows the exploits of a young Chinese man who, deciding to escape the monotony of his life by journeying to far-off Ireland, labouriously teaches himself Irish (after looking it up and discovering is the official language of the nation). Naturally, he is dismayed when he arrives after months of study to discover that hardly anyone speaks the language at all.
Donovan saw the film in Donegal, and the parallels aren’t entirely lost on him. Learning a language alone, on the far side of the world, isn’t easy; but it’s more than possible.
‘Starting off by studying grammar is a big mistake,’ he said. ‘People have this idea that if they learn all the grammar rules and the conjugations that somehow that’s going to make them a better speaker. It’s honestly the worst thing you can do when you’re starting out learning a language. To this day, I have barely studied Irish grammar at all.’
Instead, Donovan spent his time watching a lot of Irish film and television, particularly TG4, which broadcasts almost all its content in Irish. Shows like Ros na Rún, a soap opera set in the West of Ireland, and Rásaí na Gaillimhe, a comedy drama, helped him fine-tune the phrases and hear how they sound.
It was three months before he bought any books, and thanks to the support the Irish language has received, he’s not even sure that’s necessary. ‘Look, if you were determined, you could probably go the whole way through – you could become a speaker. There is quite a lot online for Irish.’
And Irish isn’t a difficult language to learn – if you take Donovan’s advice and avoid studying grammar.
‘I’ll just take a sentence or phrase from TG4, I’ll hear an actress say a sentence, and I’ll just learn that one line and use that one line for two days at home. I’ll just say it to myself and play around with it – and that’s how I learn. I come here and I’ve just absorbed things, the way a child would. That’s how I like to think of it.’
That comes from what’s called the lexical approach – learning languages in ‘chunks’ rather than word-by-word. Instead of learning the word ‘to want’ you instead learn the block ‘I want’ and another block such as ‘a glass of water’ – and fit the pieces together.
It’s how Donovan teaches English as a second language, and it works for any tongue.
A Trip to Ireland
All this effort and preparation culminated in the decision to fly a 60-hour round trip to Ireland and back to put his skills to the test. To get the most out of the journey, Donovan registered for a week-long course in Oideas Gael, who run summer language classes for adults in Co Donegal.
This wasn’t a tourist jaunt (though Glencolmcille was ‘one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been’). This was serious.
Only about half the students on the course were Irish. The remainder came from Japan, Italy, and Spain; there were fluent speakers from Russia and Denmark. Many were people with a passion for languages, or students of Celtic Studies who came to immerse themselves. He even met one of the actresses from his favourite Irish show, and shared a chat with the Minister for Tourism who was brushing up on his skills.
‘I’m definitely more confident,’ he says, without hesitation. ‘I’m definitely able to speak more fluently. I’ve got a long way to go – but I’ve been told it’s a lot better by people I’ve spoken to.’
When Donovan visited WorldIrish, we sat down for a chat in Irish with a fluent speaker – and didn’t take it easy. The response impressed. Some complex phrases threw him (’education system’ for one) but his standard was arguably better than many schoolchildren with a decade of classes behind them.
Donovan’s inspired many others to explore learning Irish. He’s been contacted by those who read his blog asking where they can find tuition, resources, or a native speaker to train with: something he thinks there’s a market for internationally.
Personally, Donovan’s going to be keeping up his Irish lessons through Skype while living in Korea. As he left the WorldIrish office, he was headed to Club Chonradh na Gaelige for an evening speaking Irish in the bar with his new friends. Speaking with him in person, you can’t help but want to do the same thing.
Resources for Learning Irish
Donovan shared some of the resources he used to teach himself from the far side of the globe. If you’re interested in learning Irish, here’s where to start for free:
1. EasyIrish podcasts
This is brilliant and the very first thing I started with.
4. Talk Irish
There's some free material on the site.
5. Daltaí na Gaeilge
In particular, the phrases section and forum
10. The abairleat YouTube channel
There are a small handful of excellent videos on the with Des Bishop. Here's one.
11. Coláiste Lurgan
They have a bunch of free albums for download of cover songs in Irish. I listened to these a lot and there are some on their YouTube channel as well with lyrics.
Like a Myspace for Irish learners
13. Irish Radio
Raidió na Life is better than Radio na Gaelteachta for people wanting to listen to the radio too.
1. Don’t stress out about grammar.
2. Focus on conversation.
3. Be motivated and determined.
You can find out more about Donovan and read his own first-hand accounts of learning Irish at his blog, the Mezzofanti Guild. There, you'll find progress videos of his experience as well as plenty of encouragement and advice.