Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye

While I was in Scotland last week I took part in conversation circles in the evenings after class. Among those attending there were some whose Scottish Gaelic was very fluent, others who struggled to put sentences together, and people like me who are somewhere in between. I could understand almost everything people said and could contribute to the conversation, though tended to make mistakes and mix in bits of Irish when I didn’t know the Scottish Gaelic equivalents. Fortunately this wasn’t a problem as some people there spoke Irish and provided corrections where nessecary.

I’ve never done classes in Scottish Gaelic, but have been learning bits and pieces for many years, and listening to Gaelic radio programmes regularly. I rarely have opportunities to speak the language, so it was very helpful to take part in the conversation circles, and especially to listen to the fluent speakers. When I had conversations with less fluent speakers they were fairly short and simple, and they tended to switch to English after a while. With fluent speakers conversations tended to be much longer and more complex, and they stuck to Gaelic almost all the time, which really encouraged me to do the same.

While my Scottish Gaelic still needs quite a bit of work, I feel a lot more confident about speaking it now and will see about arranging Gaelic conversations on Skype, and to writing more stuff in Gaelic on my other blog.

One thing I still find difficult is understanding the words of songs. If I really concentrate I can understand some of the words, but I have to hear a song many times in order to understand more. It also helps to see the written lyrics. It’s simliar for songs in other languages, especially if the singers slur the words together.

Can you understand songs in languages you’re learning? Do you understand them the first time you hear them, or do you need to hear them many times.

This entry was posted in Irish, Language, Scottish Gaelic.

8 Responses to Gaelic

  1. Andrew says:

    No way. I personally think that sung language is the most difficult to understand. Hell, most people can’t understand all (or sometimes even most) of the words in a song that’s sung in their own language! Do you have some favorite songs that you recognize that you don’t even know most of the lyrics to? Do you have some songs you’ve heard dozens of times that if pressed, you wouldn’t be able to tell people what the singer is even saying? Precisely. The speech ends up being so distorted from how we’re normally used to hearing it for the sake of oral aesthetics that it sometimes becomes difficult or impossible to understand.


  2. Ingus M. says:

    Usually, I have no problem understanding music in English (I’m Latvian), and, as far as my vocabulary goes, even in Italian, but I find it hard to understand song lyrics in French without listening to the song time and time again.

  3. Heike says:

    Song lyrics really are dependent on how well the singer enunciates while singing. There are some German songs I have no problem understanding, and others where I only catch a few words here and there. The same with English, French, Spanish, Italian… There is one band in English that I enjoy whose singer sounds like he’s got a dozen marbles stuffed in his cheeks! He’s very difficult to understand!

  4. Rauli says:

    I’m one of those people mentioned by Andrew. I’m Finnish and I have difficulties in understanding Finnish lyrics. One part of the problem is that it’s very difficult for me to concentrate on listening the lyrics. I usually end up listening to the music only.

    I’m learning Japanese on my own, and I listen to a lot of Japanese pop. It’s always a nice feeling when I suddenly realize I understand what the lyrics say.

  5. Leonardo Cecchini says:

    I am a native Portuguese speaker and a fan of Death Metal. People often ask me how can I understand the “growls” and guttural voices (usually sang in English). Well, I can’t even fully understand “regular” songs in my mother tongue…

    However, for some reason there are languages that are easily understandable in songs, like German (it sounds clearer than English for me).

  6. joe mock says:

    I can make out the lyrics of songs I listen to a lot of Gaelic music: Julie Fowlis, Karen Matheson, James Graham etc. etc. and can usually make out what they’re saying. I sit for an hour listening to Gaelic radio and can follow the weather, maybe, but have great difficulty with anything else. There are several languages that I experience this with – Hebrew, for example which I can read with ease but have the hardest time following when it’s spoken, ditto Korean – but others, like Arabic, Tagalog for instance, for some reason I find easy to follow.

  7. Petréa Mitchell says:


    Then there are the cases where people are sure they understand the lyrics but don’t


    The thing about Japanese pop music that throws me is when they switch into English, which tends to be heavily modified or just poorly enunciated.

  8. Rauli says:

    Petréa: That’s because they pronounce English the way it would be written in the Japanese syllabic script. They can’t handle consecutive consonants, and there are no sounds like l, v, or th in Japanese. Even in schools they seem to teach English using the Japanese syllable system, although I’m not entirely sure of this. That leads them to speaking [ingurisshu] instead of [inglish].

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