Nothing highlights Quine’s gavagai problem like trying to learn a new language through books written for babies.
My daughter has been attending Scottish Gaelic immersion preschool for just over a month now. I don’t know any Gaelic myself, and when she came home with some children’s books in Gaelic (courtesy of the awesome incredible fantastic amazing Bookbug programme), she wanted me to read the books to her. Presumably, learning a language via children’s books is not a bad idea; isn’t language learning one of the reasons we read to them? But since everyone in our house is a beginner, I looked into possibly getting the Bookbug’s ‘baby’ books and ‘toddler’ books, so I could personally work up to the ‘preschool’ books she brought home. And thanks to the amazing generosity of the Scottish Book Trust, today I got to try to teach myself Gaelic using a very simple baby book.
Turns out, I can’t figure out the meaning of half the words in this one book without a dictionary (there are only ten words in the whole book, besides ‘bèibidh’). Take the first image in this post. Bèibidh is just ‘baby’. But what might ‘brèagha’ mean? Or the image directly above this paragraph; what do you think ‘snog’ means? Take some guesses. I’ll tell you later. Don’t worry about the pronunciations, by the way; Gaelic Bookbug is so brilliant, they have audio books you can read along with (the book in question is Fìor Chiad Leabhar nam Bèibidhean Beaga)
To be clear, I adore the Bookbug programme and am in no way whatsoever complaining about the quality or choice of books. This is how good books for babies are written! I just never really noticed before, or perhaps I should say I never personally felt so acutely before, the gavagai problem.
Why? Because adult second language textbooks aren’t structured like baby books. (I imagine this is the kind of thing that language acquisitionists think about all the time; my apologies to the experts.)
Okay, any guesses for ‘toilichte’, above? For what it’s worth, here were my guesses for all three:
- brèagha: bending, or playing, or maybe happy
- snog: shy, or sweet, or maybe naked (thumb-sucking seemed too complicated)
- toilichte: clapping, or maybe something like warm or cozy
And here are the definitions from one dictionary I have:
- brèagha: beautiful, fine, lovely
- snog: nice, lovely, attractive, likeable
- toilichte: pleased, happy, glad
See what I mean? To be fair, if I had to find photos of babies to exemplify those words, I’d have a hard time! Because gavagai, of course.