So, confession time. I say I’ve been learning Irish for a fair while now. I say this.
What I generally really mean is that I’ve been watching things in Irish with subtitles, or I’ve been making my way (at a glacial pace) through Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Irish, comparison reading with the English copy.
Fun fact: The title in Irish is “Harry Potter agus an Órchloch”, which tells me that either the Irish actually have a single word for “Philosopher’s Stone” (not unlikely), or that the title doesn’t mean what I think it means (downright probable).
But back to the point. This brand of learning a new language is one I find works quite well for me. I don’t learn very well with flashcards. It’s just not how I like to do things.
What this means, in the end, is that while I have an OK grasp of the very basic grammar (I can tell things like Irish is an adjective-final language, and that I will never understand their prepositions), and some vocab that normal people don’t really need to put into sentences in order to get by in Irish. What I don’t know how to do is hold a basic conversation with a normal human being.
I’ve attempted to learn languages before (high school French and Mandarin Chinese, primary school Italian, plus some other hare-brained language schemes), so I know the basics of where you begin with a language. Conjugate the verb ‘to be’, learn to say hi and introduce yourself (and then be forced to do so to the person “next to you”, who is usually someone you’ve chosen because you already know them, rendering the exercise both socially unnecessary and socially awkward). Standard stuff.
Having been to two lessons in Irish by now, I’ve realised something else.
The only thing I know how to do in this language is be awkward.
The conversation I know reads like one of those intensely awkward cocktail party conversations, where perhaps you knew someone who was far better at this “peopling” lark than you. Thinking that she’s doing you a favour, she introduces you to someone else she knows, who is probably similarly awkward, in the two-birds-one-stone of social altruism. She then leaves to go talk to someone else, leaving you alone with the other person, and the conversation goes something like this.
“I’m [name],” you say, realising that this is information they already know, and cursing yourself for your idiocy.
“I’m [name],” they reply, possibly because they’re humouring you, and possibly because they’re glad you said anything at all.
“How are you?” That seems a simple enough question.
“I’m fine. And you?”
And then, sensing that this conversation is spiralling downwards rapidly, you use the most vague and multipurpose I’m-going-over-there-now phrase you know.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
I can do all of that in Irish now. Probably for exactly those reasons, and in exactly that same tone of voice.
That, or I can shout random words (“OWLS!”) at people.
I have successfully mastered the basics of social suicide in another language.