Pat McCullough chats (phone & email) with founders Eoin and Saša Ó Conchúir and Denver student Mary Price

Eoin Ó Conchúir grew up in Ennis, Co. Clare (Inis, Co. an Chláir) in the west of Ireland. While there were Irish-speaking communities in the west of Clare up until only 50 years ago, it’s an English-speaking area now. However, it still has a strong sense of all things Irish, and is renowned for its traditional Irish music. It’s there were he family raised himwith Irish as first language at home. “Interestingly, neither of my parents were themselves native Irish speakers, in that their primary home language had been English. But for different reasons, they ended up bringing up the family through Irish. When I was younger, I remember being pretty embarrassed speaking to my parents in public in Irish. These days, though, I have nothing against being heard speaking it in public!”With passion as the underlying force for many of life’s “twists of fate” their enthusiasm for the Irish language motivated Eoin and wife Saša to develop (BIG (an ironic acronym for something Bitesize!)) in their spare time. According to Eoin, BIG just grew out of a hobby. “The idea for teaching Irish online was brewing in 2008. I had already been running Irish language sites since 1996. Actually, it just started with a personal web page that included a paragraph in the Irish language. As the page grew, I was getting some emails already from people asking for translations. The Web was still in its infancy, and I think we were all excited to be suddenly able to talk to others in different countries. The translations got a bit much, and I set up in 2002.

Questions about the Irish language from people around the world continued to find Eoin and Saša. Many are for one-off translations, but others want to actually learn to speak the language. “In summer 2008, on vacation, I had my notepad out trying to think of new web site ideas. It was a lovely sunny day, we were having some beers, and the idea of online Irish Gaelic lessons started to form.” Two years later, they launched the beginnings of Bitesize Irish Gaelic.
Eoin talked about his wife and her non-Irish heritage as being a major factor in the development of BIG. “We met in Slovenia a decade ago where we were both at a kids’ summercamp. Slovenia is nestled in Central Europe, and has Alpine regions along with a Mediterranean/Adriatic coast and inner rolling hills. In some ways, I found Slovenia and Ireland to have similarities, not least of which both have small populations. We’ve been married now for several years, and living in Limerick in Ireland. Learning Irish has been a different experience for Saša than I learning Slovene. In Slovenia, I’m immersed in hours of family conversation and the wider environment. For Saša, she hears our family speaking Irish at times, but not that often. In other words, it’s not an immersion experience. I still think that actually spending a considerable amount of time immersed in your target language is just about the most valuable way to get your brain to switch. Otherwise, you must make use of as many types of resources as possible available to you. Sasa told her story in an email describing her Irish language learning process. “Coming from a small country like Slovenia, with a population of only 2 million, for me language is an important aspect of social and cultural identification. Visiting Ireland I realized that very few people spoke Irish, but those who did felt strongly about it. Despite the fact that I never actually had to use Irish in Ireland I still wanted to learn it to grasp the special cultural connotations of the Irish language. Eoin always has ideas about promoting Irish Gaelic and a couple of years ago he came up with a collaborative online Irish dictionary (which is now or and developing lessons in Irish Gaelic (and probably several more that were forgotten and will never see the light of day). I was attempting to learn Irish at the time and a lot of books and computer lessons were either too general or too detailed, but mainly too extensive and broad. What made us think about developing short, straight-to-the-point, so-called bitesize lessons was, first, the natural fact that I as an adult learner found it draining when I tried to grasp dozens of pages of language concepts. As we found out through our research, to learn a language effectively one should only learn in 30 minutes sessions and from personal experience I could definitely confirm that. Secondly, there are the economic demands of the modern society which means we work longer hours and have less free time for interests and hobbies. In order to fit learning a language into a busy lifestyle the lessons had to be short for people to stay focused and engaged for long enough to learn enough basics to be motivated to learn more complicated concepts later on.”

Eoin admitted that despite growing up with two languages, and both he and Sasa studying and working in France previously, that he still doesn’t feel like a “languages person”. But, he does feel strongly about what method of learning works for him and others. “ I find it hard to grapple with specific grammar rules as many other people also do. I do better with listening, repeating, and by making mistakes. From this, the whole idea of Bitesize Irish Gaelic is to make learning as easy as possible by breaking the lessons into just the right ‘bite size’. He adds a word of warning, “Do not underestimate the amount of work and the number of hours you’ll need to advance in being able to interact in a language. From this, we know we can’t make the learner frustrated or angry, but rather teach small chunks at any one time.” Eoin also sights Studies that have shown that regular revision is key to learning. “We recommend learners to take a lesson or two on any learning day, but to mix between learning a new lesson and revising a previous lesson.”

When asked what kind of feedback have they been getting from BIG users Eoin nearly jumped through the screen, “Wow, the feedback has been what keeps us going!” Adding, “People have been very open about how these online lessons have been helping them out, in combination with other learning sources such as listening to Internet radio. Only last week I was in contact with Patrick, a university student in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was always interested with his Irish connection, and he said learning some of the language was the next step in building that connection. He told me that he found the lessons so addictive that he was spending more time on the lessons than on his university studies!”

Denver, Colorado resident Mary Price, turned the Celtic Connection on to BIG, and is an ardent fan of the program, says, “The Bitesize method allows a person to take their time, go at their own pace and is easily accessed for review. There are also forums set up where other students can communicate with each other and share tips on learning. The feature I appreciate the most is that Eoin actually takes the time to contact students by phone and chat with them on how they are doing and answers any questions they may have. The personal touch means a lot. He is also very accessible thru e-mail contact as well. I love this program and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning a language.” Mary added enthusiastically, “At only $12.00 a month you can’t beat that!”

Eoin and Saša said that they have enjoyed a holiday in California, but look forward to visit Colorado or the Rocky Mountain Region someday soon. Take a visit to Bite Size Irish where you can learn a bit of Irish to give them a warm welcome. They’ll have a 50%-off the first month coupon code for Celtic Connection readers.

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