Gleann Cholm Cille is a small town in Donegal County in the Northwest of Ireland. Rising up around it on three sides are small mountains (or large hills, depending on who you ask), and on its last border is the sea. When I first arrived last Saturday, it felt like I had entered the alternate reality where American movies about Ireland take place: after all, the sheep outnumber the people here ten to one, every local person I’ve talked to has been beyond friendly, and a short walk up a hill will take you to the ruin of an old watchtower. Soon enough, though, Sunday came and I was plunged into the intense environment of Oideas Gael.
Oideas Gael is an immersive learning experience. Many of the people who come here are adult learners who are only able to come for one week, and they want to make the most of their time. As a result, we have classes every morning and afternoon, and activities in the evening. As you might imagine, the intensity was frightening at first. Even when I could understand the questions that professors and other students were asking me, sometimes it would take me so long to formulate an answer that they would repeat the question in English. By Tuesday of my first week, I questioned how much my ability to speak Irish could really improve.
Then, slowly, things started to turn around. At first it was just a few questions that I found myself able to answer, and then I could have simple conversations. As a rule, Irish speakers are bilingual, and most assume that Americans don’t have Irish, so for my first few days in the Gaeltacht I conducted my business in shops and restaurants in English. Finally, at the end of the week, the shopkeeper asked me what I would like in Irish, and I have spoken to her in Irish ever since.
Every day here feels like a week, and I’m not sure that anything I write could fully encompass all I feel I’ve learned already. The Irish teachers are so generous with their time and eager to share the language. Even some locals I meet in the street seem to know that I’m a learner, and slow down their speech for my friends and I when they ask, “An bhfuil sibh na Meiriceánaigh?” At the beginning of each week we have the opportunity to change our class level, and this week I moved up two levels, from a class which was being taught through English to one taught entirely in Irish. Today is Tuesday, and sometimes I feel my head starting to spin from concentrating so hard on trying to understand what I hear. This time, though, I’m confident that by the end of the week I’ll have improved more than I ever thought possible.