Learning a Language

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?”
“Yes, fine.”

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.”
“Well, seeya.”

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.


Apparently I’ve changed a bit since my first year of uni.

In first year, I went to all the events, did all of the orientation things, you know.  First year stuff.
I’m now half way through my third year of uni, and I’ve been to precisely two orientation events.
The first orientation lecture, which was mostly useless, and the International Students’ reception.  It had snacks, I was running low on food.

I decided not to go to the second orientation lecture because it was about adjusting to the culture, and call me cocky, but I’d prefer to figure that one out by trial and error, especially the slang terms.  It just seems like cheating to get that at a lecture.  I didn’t go to the meet-your-student-mentors thing mainly because it was based around a campus tour (I’ve already familiarised myself with the campus; I’ve been here a week) and carried a high risk of bonding exercises (which I am way too socially awkward for).

What I did go to, gladly, was the societies booths.  My technique here also differed from first year.
I’m still getting e-mails from societies I signed up for in first year, but then never went to any meetings or events for.  I think I will continue to get those e-mails for the entirety of the foreseeable future.  So I tried to plan ahead.
This time, I did a lap of the stalls first, to see who I really wanted to be talking to, and then went to the two stalls that caught my eye.

The first was the International Students’ Society.  Straightforward, sign the thing, pay some money, go online when I get home and such.
The second was the Irish society.  Language nerd’s dream.  I was addressed in Irish, which was entirely confusing, but I managed to find my way to sign on.

So, my plans for the evening were set.  I was to attend a “ceili” and then go on a pub crawl.

Knowing what you know about me, either in person or from earlier posts about adjusting to find my way around places, you can probably tell what happened next.
If you guessed standing in the rain near the front gate of the uni, watching all the soaking volunteers packing up stalls, searching for someone with the right T-shirt with increasing desperation, well done.  Not only that, but since the flyer I was given was written in Irish, I had absolutely no clue where to go.

I eventually found someone with the right T-shirt, who led behind the building, up two flights of stairs, and into the Seomra Gaeilge.  Because I totally would have guessed how to find that on my own.  Yes.

I was greeted entirely in Irish.  So, I understand what “Failte Isteach” means – welcome in, basically – but from there on in, I was utterly lost.  It took me about three sentences spoken to me and a minute of deer-in-the-headlights, rabbit-smells-a-fox staring before I managed to get out the sentence “Sorry, I’m only just starting to learn.”
I expected this to have created one of the most intensely awkward situations possible.
I was so not prepared for the reaction I got.
It was like I’d announced I’d bought a house and everyone was invited for dinner.
I got quizzed on the little Irish I did know, and then reassured that just hanging around people speaking would improve my language skills and comprehension.  Very true.  Definitely looking forward to hanging out with this group more often.

I found out what this particular ceili involved: Learning Irish dancing.  It’s a lot like SCA dancing, with different base moves.
And I now know how to order a drink in Irish.  So there’s that.