Here’s a review of the Edinburgh language learners’ meetup that I recently attended. It had a bit of a back-story. A new event for language lovers called “LingoFringo” was scheduled to take place in the Scottish capital. The event website was a mess (with no clear programme) and Edinburgh is a long way to travel just for a couple of days. That’s especially the case in January, when the days are short and the weather often miserable. So, I’d decided not to go. I was only persuaded to attend at the last minute by my friend Kris from Actual Fluency. The chance to spend time with people who share my passion was too much of a pull. Plus Edinburgh really is an enjoyable and interesting city, whatever the weather.
You can imagine my dismay when, only a couple of days after I’d bought my rail tickets – and at less than a fortnight’s notice – LingoFringo was cancelled, without explanation.
What seems to have happened is that the organiser failed to market it properly (or engage the help of people who could). As the date approached he lost his nerve and cancelled the venue. He refunded participation fees but then walked away, in effect shifting the loss from himself to the poor would-be attendees who’d already bought travel tickets and accommodation. What shabby behaviour!
After initial disappointment and anger among those who’d planned to attend, momentum developed to have a slimmed-down event: just Saturday afternoon, rather than Saturday and Sunday.
Gary McCann and a couple of other locally-based language enthusiasts agreed to step up to co-ordinate and booked a room at a local tavern.
I decided not to write off my train tickets and make a weekend of it.
I love a good train journey and the four hours underway from London to Edinburgh was a chance to do some work on my Japanese.
Burns Night haggis hunt and the quest for breakfast
It was Friday 25th January, the day that Scots celebrate their unofficial national poet, Robert Burns.
Once installed in my lovely AirBnB apartment, I met up with Kris to go in search of a traditional Burns Night meal of haggis, tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnip). I didn’t expect any success…. For the full story, here’s my “first evening” vlog:
The following day, Kris and I met up early with the plan of geting some breakfast. That proved rather more complicated than the previous evening’s food challenge.
There was some time for a bit more tourist exploration, though one of us seemed less enthusiastic about braving the elements than the other. To find out who that was, check out vlog number two, when my cinematography takes off into full Art House mode 😉
At mid-day, we arrived at the pub where the event was to be held. Our room filled up pretty quickly. Altogether there were about twenty people there. Some were Scots based in Edinburgh, non Scots, including a guy from the Carribean and a woman from Lithuania who currently live locally and one or two who’d flown in from abroad (France, Germany) on the tickets they’d bought for the original event.
The schedule was very simple: a series of fifteen mintue talks, with one coffee break.
Lindsay Williams kicked off with an introduction to Guarani (stress on the last syllable), an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay. It’s one of the few American languages that is still strong. It’s spoken by a majority of the population (including people of European or other non-indigenous descent) and many people in the countryside are monolingual.
Lindsay’s introduction was not just description of some of Guarani’s sounds and structures. She also shared her first hand experience from a recent trip to Paraguay.
Kerstin Cable‘s talk was an introduction to Welsh. She taught some basic phrases and spoke about the revival of the language. Like Lindsay, she noted how speakers of a minority language often mix in words from the dominant one (English, Spanish) and how this can help you as you begin to learn. Welsh was the first language I got fluent in (apart from my native English). I’ve been learning for thirty years through ups and downs. It’s a shot in the arm to share again the enthusiasm of somebody who’s recently started.
Maureen Millward is a language learner of great energy and experience. She grew up speaking Scots and English. Like Kerstin and Lindsay, she’ no stranger to learning lesser-used languages. This time, though, she focussed on general tips for intermediate learners who feel they’re stuck on a plateau. Variety is the spice of life. She talked about the importance of reading, how to use the italki site to book teachers and find exchange partners. Podcasts are a great thing to use, too, she stressed.
I’ve recently started Japanese, so I was delighted that Jess Brown was another LingoFringo speaker who agreed to attend the replacement event. She runs Nihongo Connection (a language club and events for intermediate Japanese learners). Her Japanese taster session was fun and interactive (think bowing). We also learned the numbers. I of course felt like a great “expert” (because I’ve already done the numbers 😉 ).
As you’d expect, the languages of Scotland were centre stage at the event.
Richard Raw gave us an overview of Scottish Gaelic. I already know that, like Welsh, it’s a “verb, subject, object” language and that the initial sounds of words “mutate” into other sounds according to a set pattern in set situations. I also know that the Vikings had been active in the west of Scotland and around the Irish Sea. What I didn’t know was the extent to which contact with Old Norse (and widespread bilingualism) explains some of the ways Scottish Gaelic differs from Irish.
Ed Robertson introduced the Scots language, in Scots. We could understand nearly all of it though, as the language is very close to modern English. The syntax is more or less the same. The differences are mainly in pronunciation and vocabulary. From the 1100s onwards, the two languages developed from Old English along their own paths for hundreds of years.
Scots’ use as the language of government and high society came to an effective end with the Union of Scotland and England in 1707 but the language continued to be widely spoken in subsequent centuries (and Burns and others wrote in it). Today, though, everywhere weaker than it was, it is still relatively strong in North East Scotland (Moray, Aberdeenshire). It is one of Scotland’s three official languages, though that feels a bit tokenistic to me.
Àdhahm Ó Broin learnt standard Gaelic and then went on to learn the barely surviving Argyll dialect. He stressed that Gaelic is a “language continuum” from Ireland over to Scotland (something I had a real sense of on my first visit to the Highlands last October). His passion for the language in all its richness was infectious and I enjoyed the discussion with the audience afterwards about similarities and differences with the Welsh and Irish experiences.
I was certainly glad that I made the effort to go up to Edinburgh. I spoke to quite a few of the participants afterwards and they all seemed to feel that it had been worth it. It wasn’t just about the new things that we learned, it was the inspiration of listening to speakers passionate about specific languages and language learning in general and in seeing old friends, making acquaintance with potential new ones.
Would you have enjoyed it? Sample the atmosphere in vlog number three (rather less tongue-in-cheek than the first two).