On studying in a second language

Those unfortunate enough to be following me for a sufficiently long time know that apart from my work in Latin and Greek, I am also a student of Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig). I have been studying Gaelic for at least as long as Latin, which is to say far too long. And it has been a slow process. Mostly because I live in Australia, and despite significant immigration of Gaels here, it failed to survive as a community language. So when I started, it was books and tapes, and then some short courses here, and eventually some online classes. These days I’m a reasonably competent speaker, somewhere in the B2 range, depending on the day and the topic. I’m also pursuing (s l o w l y) higher education through the medium of Gaelic.

So in this post I want to reflect particularly on the last semester, in which I took a full subject that was in Gaelic, and not “about” Gaelic (that is, the aim of the class was not primarily directed at teaching the language, except as a desirable incidental). The experience is interesting to me on two levels – firstly, for the light it sheds on the past realities and future possibility of higher education done in Latin and Greek; secondly, for the insight into what so few of us English language natives realise about the experience of ESL speakers in our education systems.

A little bit more about my Gaelic then. I speak reasonably well, I can converse with clear speakers without too much difficulty. I have trouble understanding full speed spoken Gaelic especially with dialects that I’m not accustomed to, and older speakers. I can read quite well, I can write, but slowly. For this class, we had 2hrs a week seminars, conducted almost entirely in Gaelic, ‘ideally’. I say ideally because code-switching to English is natural and normal for Gaelic speakers, and indeed native Gaelic speakers are more comfortable with it than some learners. Generally though, this occurred only on a word or phrase basis, not for extended periods of time. I generally had a high degree of comprehension, but processing real-time Gaelic about an academic topic late at night, after usually a full day of teaching living-language Latin or Greek, well that is a cognitive load.

There was (and is) one major weakness, though, in Gaelic medium higher education – a very high number of the readings are in English. So while you might be doing class in Gaelic, and writing in Gaelic, your academic literature is still predominantly in English. That doesn’t break the spell, but it does weaken the immersion.

For the class, I also had to turn in a 2000 word essay in Gaelic, and complete an exam. I had written an essay in Gaelic last semester too, but not as long. Writing academically in an L2 is challenging as heck. In English, I can produce words at an incredible rate, when I sit down to do it. In Gaelic, I had to dedicate extended period to sit down, get my brain into the right language, and then try to figure out some rather high level thinking and how to express it in Gaelic, including plenty of things for which I did not know the appropriate vocabulary, things for which there might not exist the vocabulary (otheringemicessentialism), awareness of register that I struggle with, and even plenty of times fundamental grammar and spelling that I needed to self-monitor.

All of which more clearly illumines how difficult it is for students in our education systems who have not acquired English as an L1, and/or not been formally educated into academic Englishes. It doesn’t matter how well they converse with you, they may well be struggling with academics through the medium of English precisely because these are high order tasks in a non-native language.

As for Latin and Greek, it will be a real challenge, for everyone involved, to develop not only a competency in spoken Greek and/or Latin to talk about texts at a sophisticated level, but it is genuinely possible, and my own classes are evolving with me towards that point. Learning also to write, and thus produce new reading material at that level will also be a sophisticated and complex challenge. But given that Latin remained the language of learned discourse for so many centuries, there is no linguistic barrier. That’s one reason I’ll be pushing (gently) some of my students to write more in Greek and Latin in the coming years, to generate collaborative resources of materials that are authored and edited and developed, which others may then read and enjoy, about a variety of topics, including the range of texts we read.

As for Gaelic, I will keep on with it. There is a great feeling of accomplishment to be tackling and discussing meaningful content in the target language, and knowing that language acquisition will just keep happening as we do.

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