A Minority Complex

It goes without saying that an innumerable array of factors go into the making of a person’s worldview. It was not until relatively recently however, that I fully realised the extent to which language has contributed to the shaping of my own.

A couple of weeks ago I came across an English translation of ‘A Rough Guide’, a poem by Welshman Grahame Davies. Never before had I seen myself so clearly in another person’s depiction of themselves. What’s more, never before had I felt so much like a caricature!

'Rough Guide' by Grahame Davies

‘Rough Guide’ by Grahame Davies

It’s not merely that the poet and I share the same sympathies and affinities. I am, embarrassing though it is to admit, guilty of the exact same perverse approach to guide books as he. Last December I was given a gift of The Rough Guide to Languedoc & Roussillon as I was about to travel to the region in the hopes of improving my French. The first thing I did on receiving the book was to scan the contents, locate ‘Language’, skip past ‘French’ (the language I am currently trying to learn!) and dive head first into the section on Occitan and Catalan! Little did I know I was exhibiting the telltale signs of the clichéd minority language speaker.

While we’re on the topic of minority languages and their speakers, I just posted a video on the Indigenous Language Challenge page on Facebook. For my challenge I decided to read one of my favourite Gearóid Mac Lochlainn poems, ‘Aistriúcháin’ (‘Translations’). The poem deals with the frustrations endured by the poet who writes in a minority language. Specifically, Mac Lochlainn is talking about Ireland and the Irish language but I’m sure others will be able to relate. I said I would post a written translation of the poem here in case anyone from the page wanted to make sense of what I was saying!

'Aistriúcháin' by Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Translated by Frankie Sewell and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn

‘Aistriúcháin’ by Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Translated by Frankie Sewell and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn

I would encourage anyone who is a speaker of a minoritised language (be you a native speaker or a new speaker, a fluent speaker or a beginner) to take the time and record a short video and upload it to the Indigenous Language Challenge page. The raison d’être of the group is really beautiful so I hope even more people get behind it: “Let’s use this particular group to share all of the language videos to inspire each other to SPEAK our languages. In the spirit of language revitalization, please post videos of yourselves speaking your beautiful Indigenous languages and encourage others to do the same.”

I would be really interested to hear what people make of the above poems. In particular, if you are a speaker of a minoritised language I would love to know what you think. Can you see yourself in anything touched on by either poet?

Also, if anyone can recommend other websites, projects, Facebook groups, etc. where people are trying to bring together speakers or teachers of minority languages then please do leave some information and some links in the comments section below!


Week Two: The First Week of Class

One week in and, would you believe it, it turns out that studying French for six years at secondary school can be something of an advantage when trying to take up the language in later life?! That said, I’ve already hit one or two stumbling blocks.

My first week of class focused on what you’d expect – introductions, basic vocabulary and phrases relating to the classroom and to communication difficulties, numbers, and, most of all, pronunciation. We began grappling with pronunciation by drawing on our existing knowledge of French, looking at place names, as well as French/English crossover words such as le restaurant, le café, la pharmacie, and so on.

I must admit that I felt a little frustrated at times by the pace of the class. My Leaving Certificate French definitely gave me a head start when it came to things like pronunciation and the intital range of vocabulary. For a while I felt as though I had made a mistake by enrolling at the Beginners Level. This feeling didn’t last for long however, and during aural exercises on spelling I became frustrated all over again as I couldn’t for the life of me differentiate between the vowels a/o/u. Following a little bit of homework and with the help of YouTube I’m doing slightly better now but it was definitely a confirmation of the sorry state of my French.

Besides the improved pronunciation and the small amount of new vocabulary, I have already gained a huge amount from my foray into French. For one, I was reminded once again that Irish (the language I teach) is not the only language with a complicated grammar. As my teacher explained to one student who asked about differentiating between masculine and feminine nouns, ‘There are rules, but there are a lot of exceptions.’

Even more exciting than grammatical comparisons is the way that a new language exapnds your entire universe, suddenly and dramatically. A whole new world of music has been opened up to me. The relatively minor effort I have made so far has been repaid many times over by my discovering of Belgian artist Stromae, whose album Racing Carrée I’ve had on repeat for the past fortnight (I can even sing the entire chorus of ‘Formidable’, something that everyone else in the house is really happy about).

Stromae: Michael Jackson meets Pharrell Williams meets Faithless with a Belgian twist:


The fantastic response I received to last week’s post really took me by surprise. I am hugely grateful to everyone who offered words of encouragement, feedback, and advice. I’ve had a couple of interesting book (Babel No More) and website (italki, livemocha) recommendations, and hopefully I can look at these in the near future. The most common advice put forward was to get talking to French speakers asap. To that end, I’ll be throwing myself in at the deep-end this coming week by taking part in one of the language exchanges suggested by commentators on the Facebook page.

I have already ventured briefly into the scary world of learning by speaking. During breaktime of my very first class I tried my best to buy a cup of coffee en français. Everything started out alright with a ‘Une Americano, s’il vous plaît’. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that as I turned to the cashier and said ‘Quel dommage’, receiving a quite bemused expression in reponse. What I thought I was asking was ‘What’s the damage?’ (i.e. how much do I owe you?) but what I actually said was ‘What a pity’. It might not sound that bad but I promise you, the awkward silence, the confused stare, and the fact that I had no idea what I had just said, meant that I lit up red as a traffic light within seconds. On the positive side though, I will now never, ever forget what quel dommage means.

Comedian Des Bishop relives his own embarrassing misunderstanding had while learning Irish (from his In the Name of the Fada series):

If anyone else has a similar story of embarrassing miscommunications please do share in the comments section below and, as before, any recommendations on how best to approach the early days with a new language would be greatly appreciated (in particular any advice on how to make the most out of language exchanges).