The 43-year-old, who was appointed last week on his birthday, wore jeans and open shirt like most other students when he arrived at Oideas Gael college in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal.
Despite the criticism he faced last week when appointed as chief Minister for the Irish language, he was put in a high-grade class for his week’s studies.
College director Liam Ó Cuinneagáin, who welcomed him and spoke to him in Irish about Donegal’s win in the Ulster football final, was impressed enough to put him in level three of a four-level categorisation.
Level one is starting point for people who have never heard Irish spoken, such as Chinese and other foreign students.
Level four is for students who are almost fluent in Irish.
The minister, who has twice before attended the college, admitted he tried to get into a lower-grade class.
He said: “I tried to push myself into level two. But the director wouldn’t hear of it, so I am starting at the second level from the top.”
Some 50 students, including visitors from Bosnia, Finland, Belgium, and America, are in the college this week.
Mr McHugh said: “I understand the criticism on my appointment. There was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to do the job if I was solely communicating in English.
“I haven’t used the language for 20 years, since I learned it all from books.
“My parents didn’t speak Irish and you have to speak Irish in the home to be fluent at it.
“But I can work bilingually and I have a wonderful translation service in the department.”
The minister was already communicating as Gaeilge throughout his entire 90-minute car journey from his north Donegal home to Glencolmcille.
His driver, Joe Doohan, is from the Donegal Gaeltacht and he also drove former Gaeltacht Minister Dinny McGinley.
Mr McHugh said: “All the conversation was in Irish with Joe.
“What I am looking for is to work on my fluency, and try to reignite the language that I learned for a period of 14 years, and I know I am setting a high bar in relation to that.”
Already, he has taken some slagging in his local bar for errors and mistakes the customers detected.
He said: “I made a few mistakes. I am telling people I am not fluent, but I have got a fair degree of comprehension.
“I am going to fail at certain times along the way. It will be frustrating. I know I won’t be fluent in 12 months, but I am looking to give it my best shot because my heart is in the right place regarding the Irish language. I want more people speaking it.”
School director Liam Ó Cuinneagáin observed: “Joe McHugh is like most typical Irish citizens that went through 12 years of Irish language.
“He had a job that didn’t use Irish so he has gone rusty. But he will do really well.
“I know it is his job is to promote the language, but the most effective way of promoting it is to be a speaker as well.”