Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Gaeilge agus Failte" by Annette Byrne

This is a review posted on Amazon yesterday of a book & CD package for learners of Irish from different cultures who presumably come to Ireland. A sign of the relevance, significance, and changes in Irish culture in this "first course" for adults lacking the years of "school Irish," and a thoughtful complement to the fact that so many younger families and their children are boosting the "gaeilscoilianna" or Irish-language medium schools where immersion in Gaeilge is seen as enhancing the skills of boys and girls taught bilingually from the start. Lucky them.

This is titled "Gaeilge agus Failte," but the "a" has an long accent in Irish and has been garbled in the Amazon listing, so if you have found your way to this review, congratulations for added effort. This is an softbound oversize workbook with lots of color and 2 CDs, each under an hour with many small recitals, 80-90 each CD. The small sections of the CD lessons are complemented by the many subsections of the ten lessons. Designed for classroom use by adults, the bright pictures and photo captions and cartoon dialogues and song lyrics all make this more reminiscent of a children's set of exercises than a stolid grammatically designed book like Michael O Siadhail's serious, linguistically focused, and West of Ireland Connacht dialect-based "Learning Irish." (Also reviewed by me on Amazon.) Learners resistant to an academic approach to Irish will welcome Byrne's textbook.

Daniel O'Hara's award-winning short film "Yu Ming is ainm dom" shows its protagonist checking out this very book from a Chinese library once he wishes to learn Irish. It's evidently written for multicultural immigrants to Ireland and perhaps could also benefit classes for adults outside Ireland secondarily, as lessons are scripted with an eye towards flexibility, eliciting learners' comparisons of Irish culture to their native one and their own language to that of Irish, through naturally the medium of one's (second, perhaps) language of English. No glossary, no vocabulary lists, no charts to speak of beyond the rudimentary are found. Big print, easy to read lessons, heavily illustrated and almost relentlessly so, lots of short games and fill-ins and small tasks to complete. Tries to bring in the multiple intelligences so learners can find their strengths. It will be incomplete outside of a classroom and teacher, however, as the key does not unlock all the answers. Lots of the content requires a partner to do and then a teacher to correct.

It's not concerned with an academic foundation as a college-level textbook, even though it's for grown-ups. Instead, it's a gradual introduction to Irish by teacher-led exercises, partnered activities set up to engage learners under supervision, open-ended conversation starters, suggestions for writing and speaking with partners, and song snippets. It'd be used for adult "night classes" or an introductory course taught by a native speaker rather than by a single learner, a college student, or a younger student in an Irish class. This is the first book that I know of in recent times aimed at this informal student in a classroom situation wanting the basics without the bother of relentless drills, learned paradigms, and advanced grammatical terminology. So, realize which "adults" are meant to benefit from G&F.

The CDs prove daunting to navigate, as no chart is given in the book to let you know where Track 57 or 83 or 19 is found in the textbook. You have to go one by one and make your own chart to link the icon of the cassette in the textbook to what track next comes on the tape chronologically. This is a drawback. If a chart had been included with corresponding pagination, the learner or teacher could have been saved a considerable amount of unnecessary effort. The voices are male and female, young and old, funny and curt, and are clearly recorded. Emphasis is on a consistently level spoken delivery rather than dialects, and the "Caighdean" or standard "school" form of Irish appears, as meets the needs of absolute beginners.

It's an attractive book that is designed (like RTE's Turas Teanga, also reviewed by me) to be used with a website. For an independent learner, much of the book does not have an answer key and depends upon interaction with a teacher and fellow learners, so the use may be limited. There's not much in-depth concentration on any one part of each subdivided lesson, but there's plenty of short activities and readings for brief study and reinforcement. It's far less scholarly than the Cois Fharraige West of Ireland Connemara dialect of "Beginning Irish" by O Siadhail, but more accessible than the likes of "Teach Yourself Irish" by Shiels and O Se, which takes on the Munster dialect. Note that G&F is sort of a cross-border, non-regional introduction to Irish meant for anyone, anywhere, so budding linguists may prefer O Siadhail. For less demanding learners needing the basics, this and Rosenstock (see next paragraph) would make a fine pair of tutors. So, despite the drawbacks of the CD organization, given the lack of competition for a lively, standard-based text and CD combination, G&F may prove a passable supplement to other materials. For those outside Ireland or not having had any Irish in school in the past, it will be the choice rather than "Turas Teanga," which expects that you will have had "school Irish" in your youthful past but wish in your more mature years to brush up on it again.

I recommend G&F for an independent learner in conjunction with Gabriel Rosenstock's lively, also culturally oriented rather than linguistically focused, "Beginner's Irish" CD and book. Unlike G&F, BI is meant for an individual learner outside the classroom wanting to understand the history, background, and current relevance of Irish. It lacks exercises but shares with G&F a relaxed approach for the total beginner; it is less structured and more eclectic in its dialogues, examples, and presentation, as befits a poet's authorship of a language primer! Like G&F-- which is after all more organized as it's under the auspices of Gael-Linn and the Linguistics Institute of Ireland, BI emphasizes in small snippets the context within which Irish is used and can be seen all about the Hiberno-English dialect and the sights and sounds of Ireland itself for the learner. Although both BI and G&F aim at an Irish resident, they can be used, for listening and reading and enjoyment, by solo learners anywhere. (I have also reviewed Rosenstock on Amazon.)

The CDs are not given their own pocket in the book but came cellophane taped to the inside rear cover, so the tape has to be torn off the paperback to open the CDs! Poor design once again; the lack of attention given the CDs in their physical placement and their danger of getting lost when separated from the book, as with the earlier problem of tracking where the CD corresponds to the lessons, shows that the audio portion suffered even as the written segment of the book holds promise for the learner of this ancient and ever-popular language and the culture which even a cursory knowledge of Gaeilge will help you to unlock and enjoy much more.

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