Posted in English

What I Learned On My First Scottish Gaelic Lesson

Having got through the first stage of Duolingo Scottish Gaelic, (and by the way, came top of the gold league, just sayin’ 💅 ) I thought it was time I booked my first online lesson.

It was really good! A bit daunting, but good. I found the teacher on iTalki and he was very nice, helpful and encouraging and as the torrent of new words came at me he typed them all into the skype chat for me so I wouldn’t have to write them down. Although writing things down might seem like a good idea, it’s quite confusing in Gaelic because the spelling is so weird. Up to now, I’ve been using Duolingo to load vocabulary into my head but although I know “gaothach” is pronounced like “Goo-hock” I have to type it in Duolingo, so I find myself memorising the spelling by saying it to myself phonetically as “gowt-hatch” so it’s like I am learning two parallel versions of everything and until I can read the syllables properly, writing things down is probably going to be a hindrance rather than a help. I’m addressing this by looking at the video tutorials on Gaelic with Jason‘s YouTube Channel and I’ve started reading a small introduction to the language called Scots Gaelic: An Introduction to the Basics by George McLennan. It’s surprisingly readable as an overview of the language and how it got that way.

So many words!

Anyway, no point wasting time asking a teacher about pronunciation, so let’s crack on! A bigger problem is why the hell there are so many words. For example, in the lesson about weather there is the following question:

And why does it bother me that there are so many “extra” words here? Well, I remember when I started learning French, the phrase that sounds like Kesker Say but is written Qu’est-ce que c’est just seemed like an arbitrary collection of letters and so I always found it hard to remember the spelling because i didn’t really understand what the components meant. It was only later when I twigged that it literally means “What is it that it is?” that I started to understand how it related to “c’est” and “est-ce que”, and the other little building blocks of the language. And from there I started to decode the rhythms and the… well, the plumbing of the language. So I thought if I could just parse this sentence then I could start to unravel Gaelic in the same way.

Here’s how it goes

Cò risa thaant-sìdecoltachan-dràsta
Cò means “who” usually but can be pressed into service to mean “what” or “where” sometimes. “Ris” means something like “against” usually (or “rice”!)Actually, “tha” on it’s own is the singular, present tense form of the word “to be” so it’s more like “this is” female articleWhy hyphenated? I have no idea. Presumably it could be broken down even further but Ididn’t get into thatEmbarrassingly, I thought this meant “weather” whch is probably why I was so confusedAs with “t-sìde”, I possibly could have asked whether an and dràsta have their own individual existences, but I didn’t go that far

I think the teacher was sceptical as to how useful this would be but I find it really helpful because I can watch out for the patterns in other sentences.


Cò ris isn’t always the word used for “what”. A more usual form of asking those kinds of questions is “Dè”, as in “Dè an obair a th’ agad?” (pronounced “Jane Opper a Hacket”) meaning “What work do you do? Obair must be related to “Obra” (in portuguese) and “Operation” in english via some circuitous etymological backchanneling, I think.

The answer to this question can be a bit odd or unfamiliar. “Is e IT consultant a th’ annam” which means “It is an IT consultant that’s in me”. Er… OK…

And, yes, like most languages, Gaelic uses some imported english words, especially for relatively modern words. “IT Consultant” was just written as-is, but it seems more common for them to be transformed into Gaelic spelling. I like “brabhsair” for “browser” for example and “cupa tì” for “cup of tea”.


First of all, there aren’t any conjugations. So “Tha” means “is” and “am” and “are”. It has a past (bha) and a future (bidh). I’m not quite sure where “chan eil” fits into this. On its own it means “no” but it always seems to go at the front of the sentence (which is where the verb is always found in Gaelic) so maybe the “chan” part is… a….negative— form… of… the… verb…? I’m thinking out loud here, obviously.

There are only eleven irregular verbs. What are they? I have no idea. He did give me one example and all I can say it was pretty damn irregular, but I can live with that for the joy of not having to memorise long lists. Yeeeessss! I picked the right language!


Gaelic, like french, has two forms of the word “you” (I was going to write “like portuguese” until I remembered that portuguese has about 17), and the more formal one is “sibh”. The effects of this aren’t always obvious: it messes with the endings of some common phrases like “thank you” which can be “tapadh leit” or “tapadh leibh” in the thu and sibh forms respectively, “and “what’s your name?” which can be “Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort?” or “Dè an t-ainm a th’ oirbh?”

Fhèin is a handy little word for returning a question or greeting back to someone. It means “yourself”. So if someone asks how you “Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort?” then after you tell them “Cailean a th’orm” (Colin = Cailean) you can lob the question back to them with “Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort fhèin?” (How are you yourself). So now I’m going to end this blog post and get back to work, so I’ll say tapadh leit for reading and wish you a good evening with a cheery “feasgar math”, and if you want to be able to tell everyone that you replied to a blog post in scots gaelic today, you can do that by replying in the comments below “feasgar math fhèin”. Don’t bother with the accent if your keyboard isn’t up to it: we’re all friends here.

Posted in English


When someone leaves a correction in iTalki but they don’t actually make any changes so you’re no further forward but now nobody will make proper corrections because they think you’ve already been done.


By the way, having ranted about iTalki, I’ve started warming to them again. They’ve reintroduced the free bits of the site, so I have started using them again and stopped moaning.

Posted in English

More About iTalki and Lingq

iTalki‘s comments section continues to be an absolute storm of protest about various changes they’ve made to messaging and to instant tutoring. It’s an object lesson in how not to implement change. They have at least restored the community features I was lamenting in a post a few days ago, so that’s something. In the meantime, I have been using Lingq quite a lot. Its text correction page doesn’t allow as many words but in a way that’s probably not a bad thing. I always find I write too much and then people can’t be bothered reading it all. It also has a slightly annoying feature (I think it’s something to do with unicode…?) that predictive text doesn’t work properly if I use it on the phone in a browser. If I write “nao” for example, instead of letting me click to correct it adds the correction onto the end like this “naonão”. Irritating.

The rest of the site is good for vocabulary: essentially, they have lessons in the form of podcasts and news articles. The difficult words are highlighted and you can add these – very quickly and easily – to your vocabulary list and then revise them. It’s pretty clever as a rough-and-ready way of generating lists of words you don’t know without having to do what I do now, which is note them in evernote and then transfer them to Memrise when I get a free hour. It’s not actually as good as Memrise, but it seems handy as an added extra. I’ll definitely keep using Lingq, but how far it replaces iTalki for writing practice and Memrise for vocabulary remains to be seen.

Posted in English

Farewell iTalki, Hello…. Lingq?

I’m a bit sad to see what’s happening on iTalki. They’re on the cusp of launching a new version of their site and they’ve released a post explaining it to end users. It’s pretty daft: they’re rationalising a lot of their service and binning some of the peripheral stuff like instant tutoring (which I’ve used in emergencies a couple of times but apparently is some people’s bread and butter), and they wanted to bin 45 minute lessons but did a U-turn on that one at least.

The maddest thing, though, is not really mentioned in the post itself, just the comments: There’s no community tab on the beta site. In other words, all the free sandpit area where users coudl ask questions and practice writing is going. This probably makes sense in a short-term way: why should they want to supply free services when they can concentrate on the paid content? But it seems like a terrible idea to me. The free section is the glue that holds the site together: a lot of people start there for a while, take their first baby steps, have some language exchanges, meet teachers who are good at making text correctrions, and generally build trust and loyalty to the site so that when they get comfortable enough to take the plunge with a paid lesson they see iTalki as the obvious choice. That’s all going to go now and it just seems crazy.

I first heard about this through a former teacher of mine who was of the opinion that “vai acabar tudo”. She mainly cultivates students by talking to them in their notebook comments after correcting their work; in fact, that’s how I met her. We had a good, long chat about how mad it was.

Well, a while ago, I heard from another user about another site called Lingq which I’ve been meaning to get into for a while and this seems like an opportune moment. It seems pretty good and has a lot of the things a decent language community needs: A writing exchange like the one iTalki is binning, online tutors, lessons (like Memrise, which is another site I use a lot) and various other bells and whistles. It is also prettier than iTalki and has a better app. On the negative side, it’s not the easiest thing to use: I can’t get it to just show me the Portuguese lessons. In fact, it’s mainly showing me english lessons even though I’ve told it I’m a native speaker. I tried to watch the power user webinar to find out how to filter out the irrelevant bits but it was so boring and faffy that I decided I’d rather use trial and error, but basically, I think it’s looking like a strong contender to be my new language home.

The main thing it lacks, of course, is the very thing iTalki has that I actually pay for: native Portuguese teachers from this side of the pond. But that’ll change soon enough if iTalki insist on pruning their site back to nothing. Give it a couple of months and the tutors will start showing up.


Posted in Portuguese

Rir and Loathing in as Pages


Here are a few thoughts about the jokes in this popular joke book, and a few things I have learned from reading it. I won’t trot out every new word, of course, but I noticed a few patterns and formats that came up again and again, and I thought it was worth noting them down. Being able to tell a good joke in another language is real jedi-level language skill, so I think it’s useful to know what the “rules” are.

Piadas Secas and “Dry Humour”

First of all, “Piadas Secas” doesn’t seem to be the same as what we would call “Dry Humour” (jokes told with a straight face, often with a slightly dark theme), it seems more to be “stale jokes” or perhaps just “old jokes”. Not quite Christmas-cracker level but close. If you’ve ever read a rag mag you’ll know the sort of thing. However, whereas university students tend to be very careful to avoid offence (even in the late eighties when I was at UEA) these are really in Bernard Manning territory, full of fat girl jokes, leper jokes, dumb blonde jokes, knob gags, and a little light racism. I’m not the sort of person who hurls a book across the room for that sort of thing but like… dude, it’s 2018.

Anyway, let’s look at a few examples of the jokes (don’t worry, I’ll stick to the less icky ones because the icky ones are less interesting from a language perspective):

Playground Classics

There were a lot of jokes that were so similar to old chestnuts from my youth that I’d be pretty sure they were translated from english rather than having sprung up independently

-Sabes qual é a diferença entre um rolo de papel higiénico e um cortinado de banheira?
-Não, diz
-Ah, então foste tu, javardo!
So the format for a “What’s the difference” joke is
Sabes qual é a diferença entre… or just Qual a diferença entre…
followed by Nao, diz (No, tell me)
Javardo, by the way, is like Javali (which comes up in Asterix comics when they are hunting wild boar) and seems to be more-or-less equivalent to “dirty pig”
-Quantos Psicólogos são precisos para mudar uma lâmpada
-Uma, mas a lâmpada tem de querer mudar
There were only three lightbulb jokes though. Also, no knock-knock jokes, although I did find this one that’s very similar in format but uses a telephone metaphor instead of a door-knocking one:
Estou? Quem fala?
Noé quê?
Noé da sua conta

And here’s one that’s basically a recycled “Yo mamma so fat” joke,

Era uma vez uma mulher tão gorda, mas tão gorda que um dia que um dia vestiu-se numa camisola com um “H” e um helicóptero aterrou-lhe em cima

Note the “Era uma vez” at the start, which is equivalent to “There was…”. You can also use “Havia…” to start the joke and introduce your characters. And the “tão gorda, mas tão gorda” (or “tão preguiçoso” or “tão pequeno” or whatever it might be) seems to be a pretty common stand-by in this kind of joke too. Here’s another. Same format but with “Havia” at the front and a different adjective

Havia um homem tão pequeno, tão pequeno que não andava de metro. Andava de centímetro

OK, I’m getting away from playground standards a little bit here, so let’s try some spicy foreign stuff.

Portuguese Wordplay

For me, the most interesting ones were the ones that relied on a specific portuguese puns that required me to work out how the joke worked. I assume these are old chestnuts too, in their own country.

– Boa tarde, tenho uma consulta Duarte Matos
– Ai, você deve ser mesmo altruísta vir aqui doar tomates
It hinges on your knowing that “tomates” is the portuguese equivalent of the english “plums” – i.e., slang for testicles. They’re mentioned in quite a few of the jokes.
Here’s another name-based pun:
Uma freira tinha de por supositórios em treês bebés. Meteu no primeiro, depois doi atender o telefone e esqueceu-se em qual tinha posto. Qual o nome da freira
-Madre Teresa de Cal-cu-tá

I think “Cal-cu-tá” = “Qual cu ‘tá” (“which bum is it?”). This seems to be a reasonably common joke format: describe a person or a film, or something and then ask the person to guess what it is. Here’s another

Um homem entra num bar, pede uma imperial e leva-a para casa. Qual é o filme?

– Roub-ó-copo

Then there’s:

Vira-se o computador grande para o pequeno:
– Olha para ti, tao pequeno e já computas
It uses the word “putas” that I think is a bit disrespectful of women but I’m not 100% sure because between Brazil and Portugal there seem to be many words to refer to girls having various shades of meaning that are fine in one country and basically mean “whore” somewhere else, so I’m not sure how offended your maiden aunt would be if you cracked it out at the dinner table. Considered as a straight up pun, though, it’s pretty sound. It also uses “Vira-se… para” , which is a format that’s used quite a lot in these jokes. One character turns to another and says something.

The next one relies on you being able to turn the phonetic sounds of numbers into words.

Quem 60 ao teu lado e 70 por ti, vai certamente rezar 1/3 para arranjar 1/2 de te levar para 1/4 e te dizer
-20 comer
I put it on iTalki to ask people to help explain them and it turned out to be a lot ruder than I thought, so I was blushing slightly I decoded it. “Comer” (eat) has sexual connotations which might be the obvious, or might be something more general – I’m not quite sure. It comes up in about 5 jokes.
This one:

Era uma vez uma mulher que partiu a perna ao filho
Não tinha canela para pôr no bolo.

is another I needed iTalki’s help for. I knew “canela” means “cinnamon” but I didn’t know it was also the equivalent of the english word “shin” – a colloquial name for the tibia.

And this one:

-Artur, estás tão diferente!
-Eu não sou Artur
isn’t interesting in itself, but I noticed “Artur” comes up many, many times in jokes, so I wondered if it was a stock name in portuguese jokes or just something the author happens to like. Still waiting for iTalki’s verdict on that one.
Another standard Portuguese joke format seems to be one starting “Qual é o cúmulo…” which seems to be roughly equivalent to “what’s the ultimate…”
Qual é o cúmulo de preguica
Casar-se com uma mulher grávida de outro
Pretty low-grade stuff, eh?
OK, here are my two favourite jokes in the whole book

The Cream of the Crop

O que é invisível e cheira a cenoura?
O peido do coelho

Entra uma mosca num restaurant:

-Qual é o prato do dia?

-Arroz com cocó

-Xiiiii, que nojo, todos os dias arroz!

Posted in Portuguese

Uma Nova Língua

Well, my Arabic lesson was interesting, and here’s a report (in corrected portuguese) of my daughter’s Japanese lesson:

Estou a fazer o “iTalki Olympic Language Challenge” (o desafio Olímpico de línguas). Quando estava a falar com a minha filha sobre este assunto, ela disse que queria estudar uma língua também.
– Que bom! Filho de peixe peixinho é! E qual é a língua é que queres aprender, fofinha? Português?
– Não, Japonês!
Fiquei surpreso mas ela disse que tem um grande interesse pela língua e a cultura japonesa. Por isso, hoje de manhã, teve a sua primeira aula com uma professora japonesa. Ela gostou muito dela e aprendeu muitas palavras. Marcamos cinco aulas para as semanas seguintes.
É possível que ela se farte de japonês após* cinco aulas. Não sei, mas estou muito contente de vê-la encontrar novos interesses.


*=I keep writing “após de” and it keeps getting corrected but I keep doing it.

Thanks to Sophia, Lilian and Bruna for their corrections

Posted in English

The Olympic Language Challenge – Sit Rep!

I decided – for some reason – to just do the last part of the challenge and sign up for lessons in other languages. I have Arabic and BSL on my radar for after Portuguese so I booked a trial lesson in each, and my daughter said she wanted to learn Japanese, so I used my credits to book her a lesson on condition that she finds out how to shout “Row faster!” at my rowing partner, who is Japanese. I have deliberately avoided European languages that are too similar to Portuguese and might confuse me even more.

The main body of the challenge is going pretty well and I have been making some good progress on subjunctives. Today, I watched the movie “Os Imortais” which is a really excellent film, did some reading and listened to some of the new Practice Portuguese episodes aimed at new learners. It’s mostly pretty easy but they spend time explaining the finer points of common words like “pois” and the difference between trazer and levar, so I’m learning new things anyway.

Posted in English

The Olympic Language Challenge

I signed up for iTalki’s Olympic Language Challenge. I’m doing OK. I’ve already hit “Power-Lifting” (3 hours of teaching in a day) and when I have finished my current booked lessons that will get me javelin (5 consecutive days). Then all I need is to do another 5 hours in July to hit marathon (20 hours total in the period). I quite fancied doing the fourth activity, Archery, which would mean taking a lesson each in three other languages, which I think would be a good laugh but I wanted to do at least one of them with my daughter and she wasn’t up for it. I haven’t completely given up though. I need to think about how to make it fun and also let her choose a teacher. iTalki lets you see the person in a video first so you can make sure they aren’t scarily strict. That’s reassuring.

Mini-challenges like this are a pretty good way of motivating yourself if you need a kick-start, and I definitely did. I question their value as a long-term way of keeping motivation alive though, because they encourage a stop-start attitude, where you reach the end of the time and decide to just not bother any more.  It’s already underway, but if you fancy signing up a little late you can have a look here.