A novel way to learn a minority language: Writing a novel in the language

Tim Armstrong

Tim Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer in Gaelic and Communication at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, and his novel, Air Cuan Dubh Drillseach, won the 2013 Saltire Society award for best first novel.

At this year’s conference, FEL24, Tim delivered a plenary on minority language learning in tertiary education as well as gave a reading of Gaelic novels in the evening.  This blog post draws on both talks and the lively discussions that followed afterwards.

I write science fiction in Scottish Gaelic, and when asked why, I have to admit that my reasons are fairly prosaic. While do I hope that my novels might eventually contribute in some way to the continuing vitality of the language; truthfully, that’s not why I do it.

The fact is that I just really enjoy writing—but also, writing long fiction in Gaelic is a great way for me to continue to work on my proficiency in the language.

I learned Gaelic as an adult, and the first long piece of writing I tackled in Gaelic was my PhD thesis. At the time, I would have considered myself reasonably fluent, but writing 93 thousand words on a specialised, technical subject in the language forced a step-change in my ability. The act of composing my thesis was as much about acquiring a significantly larger vocabulary and better command of Gaelic idiom as it was about composing an extended account of my research, and language learning played an even more central role in my writing process when I turned to drafting my first science fiction novel in Gaelic.

Writing fiction presents a very different challenge from writing technical non-fiction, and this is particularly true for science fiction, which combines plenty of technical terminology with the kind of broad vocabulary and idiom needed to author a long narrative in any genre. Writing a science fiction novel in Gaelic lead me to acquire a whole new level of language expertise.

I built my writing routine around vocabulary acquisition in particular. Each time I would sit down to write, I would first read a page from my favourite Gaelic dictionary (Colin Mark’s Gaelic-English Dictionary), and would note in my journal any interesting words or idiomatic constructions. Then I would read through a page or two of these word-lists, before I would finally open my laptop and start writing.

I found that this practice helped my get my head into a Gaelic space at the beginning of each session, but it also made my writing better. Again and again, I would read an item on my list and would realize that this word or phrase would either be useful in a scene I was about to write, or would work better than something I had previously written. Day after day, this practice improved my draft, but also, it built up my command of the language. I have since read and annotated all 736 pages of Colin Mark’s dictionary and have moved on to reading and annotating fiction by other Gaelic authors I like. More than anything else I have done, it is my writing that has progressed my Gaelic skills from an advanced-learner level to a level that allows me to confidently teach fluent Gaelic-speaking university students in an immersion classroom.

My Gaelic is not (and never will be) perfect. I am still learning every day, but I am sure that if I hadn’t turned to writing long fiction in Gaelic, I would still be stalled at an advanced-learner stage. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted to go further, and I suspect that I am not unusual, that most advanced learners would want to take their Gaelic as far as possible, and I have learned that writing a novel in Gaelic is a great way to do that.

I try to encourage my own students to consider writing long fiction in Gaelic, and I think it would be great if authoring a novel became a recognized right-of-passage to super-fluency for new speakers of Gaelic in general. Individual authors would enjoy the benefits of having a richer, more powerful Gaelic at their disposal, but also, all that writing would generate a wealth of new fiction in the language: scores of new Gaelic novels each year from a wide range of voices. Returning to my initial point, while authors might be writing these novels (in part) for personal reasons, to improve their own Gaelic, in the end, all of this new fiction would surely contribute to the vitality of the language for everyone.

Of course, writing a draft is just the first stage. That draft needs to be edited and published, and I have benefited from expert editorial support through my publishers, CLÀR and Sandstone Press, who were in turn financially supported by the Gaelic Books Council. A healthy literary scene in a minority language requires the patronage and practical support provided by an organization like the Gaelic Book Council.[1] Gaelic publishing will never be a profitable enterprise in a purely economic sense, and it need not be. Compared with other language development initiatives in Gaelic (like the Gaelic TV channel or Gaelic-medium education), Gaelic publishing for adults and children is cheap, a bargain really given the impact reading and writing can have on speakers’ confidence and competence in the language, and in turn, on their Gaelic use.

The more I study language revival movements, the more I am convinced that there is no silver bullet— there is no one strategy or single target for language redevelopment that will alone guarantee the future vitality of a threatened language. You have to do a lot of different things all at once, and considering how valuable a lively literary scene can be for the status and use of a threatened language like Gaelic, I believe that significant structural and financial support for writing and publishing long fiction should definitely be in the mix.

[1] I am indebted to Mark Wringe, and the discussions in his literature classes at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, for developing my thoughts on this point.