Caroline Root is originally from Boulder, Colorado. She teaches Gaelic on-line to students all over North America, Europe, and even further afield (her website is here). She is currently living in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Not only is she busy teaching Gaelic, she recently became a mother to a lovely daughter named Elizabeth, so we are grateful that she made some time to do this interview about her journey in the Gaelic world that spans Scotland, Canada and the US.
[Originally published 2016 August 6 by Michael Newton]
(1) How and why did you get an interest in learning Gaelic? What motivated you to get so engaged? What do you like most about Gaelic and/or Gaelic culture?
I got interested in learning Gaelic when I was in high school. I found a copy of Teach Yourself Gaelic in the local bookstore.
That was the beginning and even though I didn’t get very far studying by my self I found classes and a study group locally and then studied in Scotland and Nova Scotia. At first my motivation was that studying Gaelic was something interesting to do and then I was so interested and it was so much fun to learn that it kind of took over my life. Speaking Gaelic feels comfortable, like coming home, it is a part of my daily life now.
(2) How did you learn Gaelic? What was your experience of learning Gaelic, or just your experience of Gaelic communities, in Canada and Scotland?
I learned Gaelic in a lot of different ways. I started with a Teach Yourself book, then weekly classes plus a weekly study group, Then I went to Scotland. I did the Gaelic Language and Traditional Music program on Uist. Then I continued my studies at St. Francis Xavier University where I got a B.A. in Celtic studies and then I went back to Scotland, got a teaching certification and taught in Gaelic Medium Education for two years.
The time I was teaching was a huge learning experience for me. Things like having to memorize my times tables in Gaelic really quick before the kids got to that chapter and teaching science in Gaelic. None of my other studies had covered those kinds of topics. I was great on history but not things like science and math. I also got to use a lot more everyday-kind of Gaelic during that time. All my classroom management skills I learned in Gaelic so when I came back to the States and was teaching I’d be telling the kids to sit down in Gaelic. I ended up teaching a few kids some Gaelic and I did céilidh dancing with one of the classes for a year or two. It was a lot of fun.
I had a lot of different experiences with the various Gaelic communities. Over all it was a good experience, I love Gaelic and I very much miss living in a place where I can speak and hear it. I think in the beginning I really wanted to be a part of the culture, like to be adopted by Gaelic culture and I had a lot of struggle with that because I felt that I would always be seen as an outsider.
Looking at it now I think if I had stayed in one place long enough they would have accepted that I was there and a part of things but I was never going to belong to any of the communities that I lived in, never going to be one of them. I’m kind of OK with that now, I don’t mind so much because I’m older and more relaxed about who I am. I am a Gaelic speaker, a Gaelic learner and I feel like I have done and am doing things to help Gaelic but I am not someone who grew up with that culture.
(3) How would you compare the profile of Gaelic, and the representation of Scottish heritage, in the U.S. in comparison to Canada and Scotland? Do you think that there is a better understanding about Gaelic heritage now compared to a decade or more ago? How could it be improved?
I think things have changed a lot since I started learning Gaelic 17ish years ago. When I started there was a big group of people learning Gaelic here in Colorado. It felt like joining a really fun club. That isn’t happening so much anymore. There are a few people I know that are still engaging with Gaelic here but it isn’t as active.
I think things have gotten much better in both Scotland and Nova Scotia in that time, though. I remember going to Scotland in 1999 and I was looking for Gaelic and had a hard time finding it. And when I went back to live there and study Gaelic it still wasn’t that visible, it seemed like most people outside of the Gaelic areas didn’t really know about it and even in Gaelic areas there wasn’t much pride in the language and culture. That was just my perception.
In both Scotland and Canada there is so much more going on with Gaelic now. More opportunities to learn and speak it. I also feel like there is a lot more (internal to the culture) respect for the language, like people are valuing it more.
All over the world I think the awareness of Gaelic is much greater than it was. You may or may not be a fan of Outlander but it really has let a lot of people know that Gaelic exists. Even buzzfeed keeps coming out with little Gaelic things. Again they aren’t always the most accurate but that something like buzzfeed even knows that Scottish Gaelic exists is a huge change from the way things were.
(4) How much interest and demand do you see from your students to whom you teach Gaelic? Where do these folks live and what is motivating them?
I have experienced a steady and growing demand to learn Gaelic, from people all over North America and beyond. Most of the people I teach are in North America but I’ve had a few students from Europe as well and some interest from Australia. I would say that the majority of them want to learn Gaelic because it is their heritage but some just got interested for some other reason and really want to learn.
(5) Does Gaelic culture offer something special to North Americans? Why is it worth nurturing and promoting, at least to those who are open to learning about it? How could a supportive organization such as GaelicUSA fit into a larger vision?
I think that for a lot of people Gaelic culture is part of their heritage and learning about it can give them a deeper sense of who they are and who their ancestors were. This can be deeply satisfying for a lot of people. In some places like Nova Scotia, it is still alive so there is the opportunity to take part and to be involved with something that is happening now but also stretches way way back in time as well.
Learning about Gaelic culture, especially about Gaels in North America, really adds to a more nuanced understanding of North American history. For most Americans, U.S. history is taught one year in school and most of the time that isn’t long enough to even cover all the major events let alone really look into who people were and where, culturally, they came from. So for people who are interested in Gaelic finding out about these people can really flesh out some of that history.
I hope that supportive organizations are encouraging people to learn the Gaelic language and about the culture. I hope that they are welcoming everyone, from the dabblers to the enthusiasts, and that they are providing an opportunity and path for people to go deeper into their studies, if that is what they want, but at the same time not alienating anyone.