My Week Learning Scottish Gaelic with uTalk

With over 2,500 basic words and phrases in more than 150 languages, there’s plenty the uTalk app offers for you to learn. But as we all find ourselves getting busier and busier, how much time do we realistically have to spend on language learning? We decided to find out by having Charlotte, our Marketing and Sales Coordinator, use the app for one week to see how much she could learn.

First things first, I’ve got to choose a language. There’s over 150 on there, which is a bit daunting at first, but once I discard the ones I’ve studied at some time or another—and the ones that are especially close to them—I’ve whittled the list down a little.

I end up taking a look through the list of top-selling languages on the app and one immediately catches my eye: Scottish Gaelic. I’m not from Scotland but half my family is, so it interests me; plus, it’s the International Year of Indigenous Languages this year, so it seems like a good idea to take a look into one of the UK’s ten indigenous languages.

I spend the weekend prior to my challenge having a play around with the app and try out the free words. I’m not sure what I’m expecting at the end of this week. Hopefully I’ll have learnt enough Scottish Gaelic that I can deal with a few situations, but I’ve spent enough time on language learning to be realistic; I’m not going to be fluent—but who would be?

Day One: How do you say that again?

I get on the bus to work and have every intention of starting my challenge—except my headphone adapter is broken. Again. 

Instead, I end up starting on my lunch break, where I let the First Words topic play through while I eat. Some of the words don’t look too bad, but how exactly am I supposed to pronounce na h-iuchraichean (keys)? I slow down the audio and start to get it but I’m definitely glad I’m not going to have a spelling test at the end of this thing!

I managed to do the Easy Game—get full marks too!—and have at least two words I definitely know: chan eil (no) and halò (you can guess this one, right?). I nip back to Phrase Practice to try and cement them all in a little better, then try the Hard Game—full marks again.

The Memory Game is the one game on the app I find the trickiest. It’s kind of nerve-wracking, not just because I’ve only just learnt the words but because I’ve got to remember exactly where up to six pictures are positioned. One moment of distraction and oops, that’s it, I can kiss a perfect score goodbye. Still, it’s a super effective way of learning because I’ve got to remember the phrases in the language so I can tell where they are! Overall, it doesn’t go too badly, either, apart from the bit where I mix up trì (three) and clì (left). They sound closer than they look! 

What’s interesting at this point is that I’m already starting to learn structures. Not grammar, but phrases where I can swap out words, so even if it’s not quite correct, it makes sense. Càite bheil… clearly means ‘where is…’, however that forms itself in Scottish Gaelic grammar, which makes a couple of phrases a lot easier to learn.

Once home, I use the desktop version of the app and get right back into it. I didn’t really want to play the Speaking Game in the office (I’ll cite not wanting to disturb anyone but no one wants to hear me struggling my way through some of these consonants!), so I play that (and yay, it goes well!) and then try recall.

Recall is hard. It’s taking what you’ve learnt passively and making it active and, wow, I’ve learnt to recognise a lot but not absorbed much. I just start laughing when na h-iuchraichean (keys) pops up because that word is not going to come out of my mouth anytime soon.

After a half-successful attempt, I move onto Social Phrases; I need to be able to say what my name is, right? Well, this is a pretty difficult topic. There are lots of longer phrases and tha mi duilich gu bheil mi fadalach (I’m sorry I’m late) has me absolutely stumped on the Hard Game. 

I leave that one there and decide on something that just has to be easier: Numbers up to Twenty. And, yes, I get a perfect score on everything but Recall (which I decide to leave for now). This has got to be mostly because, like with most languages, Scottish Gaelic has a pattern when it comes to numbers—fifteen is five and ten, sixteen six and ten, etc., so it’s like a quick cheat to learning more!

End of Day One: 1h16m; 802 points.

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Numbers up to Twenty.

Day Two: Time for piotsa and an etymological distraction.

Headphones are fixed, but I’m too tired on the bus to learn anything—I doze all the way to work and start with the app on my lunch break instead. I decide to try out the Social Phrases Memory Game first thing—it’s hard, sure, but I get 77/100 points, so not bad!

Since I’ve eaten, I decide it might be a good time to try the Food and Drink topic and ooh, this one’s fun. Words might not look the same but they sound very similar, so t-seoclaid is chocolate and piotsa is pizza. Easy! I get full marks on the Easy and Hard Games even though I was worried about this topic when I first chose it, which is down to all those words that sound the same, even if they look totally different.

One of the phrases in this topic is ‘Could I have a bottle of water, please?’ so I decide to take this phrase and try making some of my own—because ‘could I have… please’ is always something that comes in handy.

I try:

  • Am faigh mi staoig, mas e ur toil? (Could I have steak, please?)
  • Am faigh mi piotsa, mas e ur toil? (Could I have pizza, please?)
  • Am faigh mi coca-cola, mas e ur toil? (Again, take a guess!)

I also get totally distracted by the fact that soup is am brot which clearly comes from ‘broth’ but also has me begging the question: where does the German ‘der Brot’ (the bread) come from? About ten minutes later I discover they’re completely separate words, which makes sense but is a little disappointing.

Later, I do the Speaking and Memory Games for Food and Drink; sandwich turns out to be a tricky word but asking for a cup of tea and a cup of coffee is fun! 

Having identified patterns comes in useful when I go back to First Words; knowing càite bheil gets me through a few more of the Recall phrases and I redo the hard games to get full points. I also go back and do the Numbers up to Twenty recall and—boom, full points! 

Buoyed by this success, I choose Travelling as my new topic and immediately regret it. It’s all phrases! Oh no! Still, I don’t give up and I manage to get full points on the Easy Game because some of the phrases aren’t so bad—they use words I’ve learnt in other topics—but some are going to be tricky.

End of Day Two: 2h21m; 1,251 points.

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Food and Drink, Travelling.

Topics Completed: Numbers up to Twenty.

Day Three: Squeezing it in

Somehow I don’t end up using uTalk at all really in the day—first thing in the morning is not proving a productive time for me (not that I ever really thought it would!) and I don’t have time at lunch. 

After work, I’m meeting a friend for drinks, so I load up the Colours topic before I leave to try it on the tube. Everything works well and it turns out colours aren’t that difficult, though I’m sure I’ll mix up dubh (black) and dearg (red) and then do just that in the Easy Game!

I don’t do long—it’s not far to where we’re meeting—and then I do nothing on the way back; I’m too busy thinking about food and my bed! Still, something is better than nothing.

End of Day Three: 2h31m; 1,320 points.

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Food and Drink, Travelling, Colours.

Topics Completed: Numbers up to Twenty.

Day Four: Going for gold

At lunch, I decide to try Colours again—we’ve been testing the app all morning, which has really drilled into me that gold is quite similar across languages (French: or; Spanish/Italian: oro; Scottish Gaelic: òr) and so I get full marks on the Easy Game—but then I get bronze and gold mixed up on the Hard Game, boo! I seem to have solved my black/red issue, but yellow is proving to be somewhat trickier now as well because it stops me getting full marks on the Memory Game.

I decide to skip Travelling for now and start Short Phrases instead—this has question words which might come in handy. I go through all the phrases in this topic and there are so many, but then I try the Easy Game and get full marks.

On the bus home, I try the Short Phrases Hard Game, which is tricky but I don’t get a bad score. I’m surprised by how many I remember after only trying the topic out at lunch!

End of Day Four: 2h55m; 1,490 points.

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Food and Drink, Travelling, Colours, Short Phrases.

Topics Completed: Numbers up to Twenty.

Day Five: Frantic Friday

I have a very busy day at work and my lunch is cut short so I don’t learn any more Scottish Gaelic until I get home again—and instantly get two wrong on the Short Phrases Speaking Game, argh!

I go back to Colours and, like Numbers up to Twenty, this is nice and easy. I love the use of image association in the app; it’s something you have to get used to, but once you’ve got it (and it doesn’t take long!) it makes Recall so much easier. Either way, I realise I didn’t do the speaking game before so do it and get full marks! I then try to redo the hard game to get full marks but mess up with òr and umha (gold and bronze). They might look completely different but they sound so similar!

Still, I push on and manage to make it through Colours Recall—some words are tricky but some have just managed to stick, which is nice. Yes, it helps that some are almost the same, but I can’t help that advantage. I really like the way the woman pronounces ‘silver,’ and so vow to copy her voice from here on out—but we’ll see how well that goes, I guess! I try the Hard Game again and it’s the choice of bronze versus gold in the last round (oh no, looks like the app has worked out what I’m getting wrong!); my finger hovers over a colour… and I get it right! Yay! I get full marks when I retry the Memory Game as well, so that’s Colours done!

Time to start a new topic (yes, please ignore the several other topics I haven’t completed yet) and since I really need to know the days of the week, I choose Calendar. 

Except, it’s not just days of the week. There’s months, seasons, the words for ‘week’ and ‘hour’ and wow, it’s difficult. I do the Easy Game but don’t even manage to get full marks on that—though I’m surprised by the ones I pick up straight away. An Lùnastal, August, looks like it has ‘luna,’ which I relate to ‘moon,’ in there. A quick google tells me I’m wrong: it’s actually related to Lughnasadh, a Gaelic festival celebrating the harvest. 

An Dàmhair (October) is easier because we did a fact about this for Scottish Gaelic week. It’s also the month my birthday’s in—so of course I’ll remember it! An t-Samhain (November) is also not too difficult, since we just recently shared a blog post about Samhain and its origins. A few others aren’t bad, either, but I give up pretty quickly—there’s just an awful lot to learn!

End of Day Five: 3h28m; 1,712 points.

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Food and Drink, Travelling, Short Phrases, Calendar.

Topics Completed: Numbers up to Twenty, Colours.

Day Six: Best laid plans, and all that

Saturday! Or, I should say, whatever the Scottish Gaelic word is for Saturday—except I can’t remember it yet! 

I do some shopping and have every intention of learning a little on the bus but my phone updated to the new iOS overnight and the battery drain is, for some reason, ridiculous. When I do get home (several pounds lighter—and I don’t mean weight), I try the Calendar Easy Game but don’t get any more points than I did last time.

I decide to go back to Travelling and do the Hard Game. I don’t re-look at the phrases before and I haven’t been on this topic in a couple of days but still, I get 37/50—so not too bad! I’m beginning to really hear the differences between words, which is new. Normally when I start learning a new language, I focus a little on pronunciation but my listening skills are always a step behind—not ideal. The fact that I can hear the differences between a lot of phrases (not all, of course!) after just six days is really encouraging.

I plan to do more, but somehow the evening gets away from me… At least there’s still tomorrow!

End of Day Six: 3h38m; 1712 points

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Food and Drink, Travelling, Short Phrases, Calendar

Topics Completed: Numbers up to Twenty, Colours

Day Seven: The final countdown

This is it. The last day. It’s Didòmhnaich (Sunday) and tha an t-uisge ann (it’s raining) so I have absolutely no intention of going outside anywhere. I do decide to try out the Outdoors topic—mostly because I know I need to be able to talk about the weather; I’m not someone who deals with weather especially well!—but apart from that I promise myself I’ll go back through all the topics I’ve covered so far and try and progress them as far as I possibly can.

I do the Easy Game and the Speaking Game on the Outdoors topic but don’t get full marks on either, so I go back to the Social Phrases. Now that I’ve looked at days of the week, some of those longer phrases are a tiny bit easier and I find the combination of doing the Easy Game, then the Hard Game, then the Easy Game again is really good for making some of the vocab stick. On a sudden high, I try the Calendar Easy Game again—but am brought swiftly back down to earth when I get fewer points this time than I did last time I tried it!

First Words is a little easier now; I get full marks on the Memory Game and manage to do a fair few of the Recall phrases. I also try the Travelling Speaking Game. The phrases in that topic are really difficult at the moment (lots of question words that I’ve not quite gotten used to), but I do get more points this time around, which is nice.

I keep playing different games until I’m starting to make more mistakes than usual, then I finally give up. I’ve done pretty well though, I think—I’ve learnt a lot in the last seven days!

End of Day Seven: 4h56m; 2,081 points.

Topics Tried: First Words, Social Phrases, Food and Drink, Travelling, Short Phrases, Calendar, Outdoors

Topics Completed: Numbers up to Twenty, Colours

The Takeaway

After around five hours learning Scottish Gaelic this week, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. I had very little practical knowledge of the language going into this—I definitely didn’t know how to pronounce anything—so having learnt even a couple of phrases would have been great.

I’ve learnt far more than that. It’s definitely more of a passive knowledge, at this stage, but that’s not all that surprising. I was starting to get there with some of the Recall phrases but I either needed more time or to try out fewer topics—but then I also wanted to avoid boredom, especially since I was trying to fit my learning in between doing other things.

I would say that I’ve definitely got a much higher listening skill than I would have through other methods. Playing the Hard Game and the Memory Game really helped with this, especially when it came down to those words I kept mixing up. I’ve drilled some of them enough that I’m hoping they’ll stick, too!

One of the main problems I faced was that I wanted to try out as many different topics as I could in a week—which meant less time to spend on each one! If I had two weeks, or a month, then I would space these out better because that would lead to better recall, as I found when I went back to the Travelling topics after a couple of days

Also, despite the fact that uTalk isn’t really designed to teach you to read, I’d say I’ve learnt a lot in that department! As an English speaker, Scottish Gaelic doesn’t always look like it matches up to the alphabet I’ve learnt—which makes the audio essential!—but having such a focus on the audio has meant that, as I’ve been progressing and learning new words and phrases, I’ve gradually started to anticipate how things might be spelled. Does that mean I can go ahead and spell na h-iuchraichean without looking it up? (Or without copying and pasting it from earlier in this post?) Absolutely not! But I know now that I will be able to one day, and that’s what matters.

How confident am I about speaking Scottish Gaelic? I mean, it’s been a week, but I feel like I’d be able to greet people, ask how they are, and I have a few other phrases that have just stuck. Obviously the active skills will come with time—under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t try and cram this much study of a brand new language into the first week. Even limited by this, though, I would definitely be able to order a pizza and coke, which is really the important part! 

If you’ve used the uTalk app and had success with it, please let us know by getting in touch via Facebook or Twitter. And if you’d like to give it a try, click here for a cheeky discount on a subscription with us!

Until next time—Mar sin leibh! Goodbye!

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