My Journey to Becoming a Gaeilgeoir

Riccardo Superbo, our Client Solutions Engineer in the Professional Services Team at KantanMT, is a language ‘fanatic,’ if we may say so ourselves. With thorough knowledge of five languages, he has recently undertaken the mammoth task of mastering the Irish language – a commendable task, given the complexity of the language. In this blog post, Riccardo speaks about his observations and experiences of learning Gaeilge as an Italian native, living and working in Dublin.

Irish KantanMT

Learning a new language is an exciting challenge that brings along new experiences and adventures for the learner. What I personally like most about the process is how, with each new learning phase, a new aspect of the native culture is unravelled to the learner.

I believe, in fact, that there’s no better way to fully comprehend a place’s customs and traditions than by being able to understand its language. Having grown up with a genuine passion for languages, I have developed a sense of curiosity for any new language I come across, as well as a tendency to make connections with those I’m already familiar with. These factors, together with what some people might call a hint of eccentricity, pushed me to learn four foreign languages, and to embark on the road to learning a fifth one – Irish.

A little background of the language

Irish, also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge, is a very particular language that doesn’t closely resemble any commonly spoken language in Western Europe, such as English or French, if not for some minor influences in the vocabulary. Though Irish falls under the Indo-European branch of linguistic classification, it is one of the Insular Celtic languages, where its closest relatives include, among others, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton.

From a cultural perspective, the Irish language has a peculiar position in its country of origin. Despite being by law the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, only a minority of the population uses it daily as their first language, whereas English remains by far the dominant language in the country.

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Why learn the language?

According to me, living in a foreign country would usually be sufficient reason for learning the native language of that country. Being able to interact, and therefore to integrate, with the locals is very important to me. When I moved to China years ago, managing to understand and speak Mandarin Chinese, though at an intermediate level, made a lot of things much easier for me. It also allowed me to get along with the locals, despite belonging to such different cultures.

When I later moved to Ireland, however, there was obviously no need for me to learn a different language (since I already knew English), although I was aware of the existence of Gaeilge and was itching to unveil its mysteries. Thankfully, I didn’t make the same mistake as the protagonist of the now-famous Irish movie, Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom! You can watch the award-winning short film below.

It was only when I got to know a bit more about the Irish culture that I decided to take up studying Irish. I found that the main difference between the foreign languages I already knew and Irish was that the former were convenient or useful for me. They turned out to be indispensable for my living in specific countries. On the contrary, apart from a very limited range of situations, I would hardly ever have to use the Irish language in my day-to-day life in Ireland. However, I also knew that I had to at least try mastering the native language of Ireland as best as I could – I felt like I owed it both to my passion and to the country that was hosting me.

Was it hard?

I must admit that studying Irish is not an easy task, not only due to the intrinsic difficulties of the language, but also because learners don’t come across the language very often and, as such, they don’t get the chance to practise it often.

When learning a foreign language, we’re often told that the best way to master it is by immersing ourselves in the culture where the language is used and spoken. In the case of Irish, this would mean living in one of the Gaeltacht regions (i.e., the areas where Irish is spoken as a first language, which are mainly in the West of Ireland). For someone like me living in Dublin, it is almost impossible to practise the language on a daily basis. This is probably the main reason why I didn’t really succeed in self-taught Irish. Thanks to my stubbornness, however, I didn’t give up and decided to start a proper course at a language school.

My tools for learning the language

Despite still using Duolingo as a tool to practise my rudimental Irish vocabulary, I completed a beginner’s course and I am on my way to finishing an elementary course at Gaelchúltur. The focus of these classes is mainly on spoken Irish (listening and conversation), with occasional insights into grammar and writing.

In Italy, this is not a conventional approach to learning a language, but I believe that at a beginner’s level it is probably the best one, particularly for Irish, where pronunciation plays an extremely important role. The other students in my class are very diverse as far as background and country of origin are concerned, and all their stories are very interesting.

Multilingual KantanMT

There is, for instance, the Latvian guy who is only spending a year in Ireland but is simply interested in the language; the Polish woman who has been living here for a long time and feels she needs it to be completely integrated; the Greek mam who wants to learn it in order to help out her son with his school homework; the French girl who has a curious interest for road signs. Perhaps not surprisingly, all these people have something in common – they are multilingual and have a general linguistic knowledge which is above average.

And then, almost as a separate category, there are the Irish, who somehow are the ones I admire most. Almost every Irish person who goes back to learning Gaeilge shares the same objective: they want to refresh their knowledge of the language just to develop a closer connection with their own culture. In the world, there are many examples of languages that are at risk of becoming extinct because there are only very few natives who speak them. Seeing that there are people in Ireland who are proactively trying to keep the language alive is something I personally respect and appreciate a lot.

Interestingly, the relationship between Irish people and their national language has not always followed a simple route. In my next post, I will talk about this and how the Irish folks feel about foreigners learning Gaeilge.

Meet Riccardo Superbo:

Riccardo Superbo KantanMTRiccardo Superbo is Client Solutions Engineer in the KantanMT Professional Services team. He holds a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. degree in Materials Science from University of Milano-Bicocca and another M.Sc. degree in Translation Technology from Dublin City University. He has extensive experience in translation technology.

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