GROWING up on the east coast of Scotland, my exposure to Gaelic extended to coming home from school too early and being frustrated that the Gaelic-language children’s TV shows hadn’t finished yet.

I assumed that the language wasn’t for me. It was for all those people on the West coast in knitted jumpers with lilting accents.

So, when Duolingo offered me a 30-day free trial to learn Gaelic ahead of St Andrew’s Day, I wasn’t sure how I would connect to it.

Here’s what I learned.

Gaelic is everywhere (at least in Scotland)

I had, of course, some knowledge of Gaelic. I’d seen it on road signs and spotted the odd “failte” written on the door of a shop. I’d even heard a few songs by Julie Fowlis and Capercaillie. But it was only after around of a week of Duolingo that I began to realise just how embedded it is in Scottish life.

There were the loanwords I already knew: ceilidh, crag, cairn, galore, loch, slogan, and smashing. And plenty of other words I didn’t realise had Gaelic roots, including my own mother’s name: Colleen comes from caileag, which means girl (one of the first words I learned on Duolingo).

@scotnational What I learned from 30 days of Gaelic on Duolingo! #Gaelic #Scotland #Duolingo ♬ original sound - The National

But the legacy of Gaelic’s time as the most commonly spoken language in Scotland is perhaps realised best in place names. Anywhere beginning with Auchter, Bal, Dun, Inver, Kin or Kil are all Gaelic in origin – which, as anyone from Scotland knows, is a whole lot of places.

There was a comforting familiarity to the experience; to realising that these sounds I’d been familiar with all my life were patiently awaiting my discovery of their origin.

While place names like Auchtermuchty no doubt continue to elicit sniggers from tourists, to me they were normal. Indeed, I always liked them. The kinds of words that flummox foreigners feel homely, like linguistic threads of a shared culture. Now, I could finally grasp what they meant (which, in the case of Auchtermuchty, is “upper pig enclosure” – a fact of sheer pastoral mundanity it warms me to it even more).

The joy of saying “Blasta!”

There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes with the saying of certain words or phrases.

Reciting Olympia Dukakis’s monologues from Steel Magnolias is a regularly pleasing exercise for me.

But I didn’t expect to get that with a rudimentary introduction to Gaelic. I was wrong.

For example, exclaiming “Blasta!” after eating something particularly delicious is with me for life, now. There’s no English equivalent that conveys that sense of joy so well. “Yum” can’t hold a candle to “Blasta”.

Then there’s muc, of course. The perfect word for a pig – somehow both vaguely onomatopoeic and descriptive.

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And that was all before I discovered Gaelic nonsense songs, known as puirt a beul, which literally translates to “tunes from a mouth”.

There’s brochan lom, a song about thin porridge, which features in the film Whisky Galore. But there’s countless others, too – with subjects ranging from a man whose lost his shoes to the act of churning butter.

They are earworms: the kind of songs that live in your head forever, even if you don’t understand what the words mean.

Gaelic is valuable, even to those who don't speak it 

I’ve often heard language learning reduced to an act of total utility. We value them in order of usefulness, ranking them by how many people speak a certain tongue or whether it will help us with work or on our travels.

However, in learning just a little bit of Gaelic I realised how wrongheaded an approach this is.

More than 1.5 million people have started learning Gaelic on Duolingo since it launched four years ago. And the primary motivation for doing so is culture. That is, people want to connect the world around them; to a heritage that, over time, has become obscured in our daily lives.

I expect most people have heard the concerns about Gaelic’s continued existence. Some have even suggested that the language could be “dead” within decades. And, while I’m not naïve enough to suggest that Duolingo is the sole answer to saving a language, its sheer accessibility make it a valuable tool.

As Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh, of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, The National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, said: “There has always been an interest in Scotland’s Gaelic language and culture, especially with such a vast Scottish diaspora, but learning apps like Duolingo and the growth of Gaelic Medium Education in schools have made the language so much more accessible to a larger audience.

“Gaelic on Duolingo has played a big part in the expansion of learning resources and opportunities elsewhere over the past few years. At Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, we have had students come to us via Duolingo, starting with our An Cùrsa Inntrigidh or An Cùrsa Comais immersion courses, before going on to study on our degree courses. Long may this growth continue.”

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I genuinely never expected to come away from these 30 days feeling excited. I’d attached a certain nonsensical cringe factor to East coasters learning Gaelic – a factionalism that fenced off whole swathes of people I didn’t feel had any legitimate reason to learn it.

I now realise that any reason at all is a good one. Not because I feel people should cling to history for the sake of it, or because I feel any great personal or sentimental sadness at the language’s demise. But because it is latent within us already. These sounds, these places.

And, somehow, learning it felt familiar, like I finally understood the language of a destination I’d known all my life.