Sunday, March 11, 2007

Michael Ó Siadhail's "Learning Irish"

This Yale UP book (by default and its central dialect of Cois Fharraige, Conamara in the Connacht version in between, geographically and linguistically, Munster and Ulster variants), well, this textbook is the monolith we gaeilgoirí must confront, like it or not, and decide whether here to pause and consult the oracle, or to move on and thus North to Éamon Ó Dónaill's Now You're Talking for the North, or down to Teach Yourself Irish for the South, or back towards Dublin for the standard "school" version of Irish and its language helps. See how LI compares to the other learning texts...

Many others have reviewed fairly the strengths and weaknesses of LI. I wanted to offer advice to beginners wondering if this is the best book for their needs. Yahoo groups are making their way through LI as one group focused on Connemara dialect-- for the Cois Fharraige version as spoken along the Co Galway coast is that which Ó Siadhail teaches; other Yahoo groups are learning Munster or Ulster Irish with different texts; another group takes the Standard "school" Irish via Mairead Ní Ghrada's primer "Progress in Irish." So, you have options that combine introductory textbooks with web- based discussion lists, often with sound files added by learners. This improves upon the dodgy semi-audible cassettes that some editions of LI come with and others do not. A CD version is rumored.

This book also came out in different printings; the latest 1992-era cover boasts of it being an improved edition, but little changes within beyond a somewhat clearer font and resetting of the layout (not enough if you ask me-- this book takes scrutiny and sharp eyes to make out crucial accents over many small-type letters; the italics are not easily discerned from a quick glance of many passages). LI contains errors; the answer key is not always correct, and explanations occasionally are lacking for idioms or vocabulary necessary for what a chapter may expect you to translate. This can be a far more frustrating book than an idealistic learner may expect.

I have taught grammar in English, but the linguistic explanations provided here at times bewilder me. It's not a well-organized progression of content for each lesson. Not until Ch. 12 do you learn the copula. Verbs begin to be taught in greater number later than you'd expect. The author may insert essential information into a tiny footnote or a blip of a phrase (often an exception to a rule he's explaining, or an idiom otherwise not to be found in the 30 chapters) within an otherwise unrelated paragraph. This book, the back cover tells us, is for the self-tutored learner or the intrigued linguist, but it may please the latter who's able to understand the convoluted and compressed paradigms and examples better than the clueless newbie.

I do like the little texts ending each chapter to translate from Irish-- these are my "reward" for finishing a chapter after the grueling work of making the English sentences in the other exercise into Irish. Despite answer keys, much will elude you as to what Ó Siadhail wants you to write and what you thought you must write given the past lesson. Also, that lesson may give you many words that you will not use until much later-- if at all. This hit-and-miss approach may reflect real-life uses of a language learned in the real world, but it does try a learner's patience.

Still, it's the only book teaching a dialect between north and south, and thus considered as the Connacht mean between Munster and Ulster extremes! Unlike most primers, it plunges you into a dialect with its own irrational peculiarities, and this immersion is necessary once you leave standard "school" Irish texts for learners behind. However, for absolute beginners, I would supplement this with a more concise, friendlier introduction such as Gabriel Rosenstock's "Beginner's Irish." This concise text is more "updated" than "Progress in Irish," but "PiI" features short chapters and the latter is easier to consult; Rosenstock combines an overview of the language with samples of how it works and has evolved alongside lessons.

If you're only curious for now about the language's context and what it's like past and present, "The Irish Language" by Darerca Ní Chartúir is recommended. Grammatical explanations much more detailed but also much clearer than those in LI can be found in a reference guide that anyone slogging through LI will soon need: Donna Wong's "A Learner's Guide to Irish". (I review Rosenstock, Ní Chartúir, and Wong on Amazon.) Nollaig Mac Congáil's "Irish Grammar Book" is a shorter reference while Éamonn Ó Dónaill's "Teach Yourself Irish Grammar" (unlike the dreaded revision of "Teach Yourself Irish"!) is another useful self-learning text combining explanations and exercises.

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