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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Irish Language: The Future, if any?

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny incurred the wrath of Gaelgeoirs across the land at the recent party Ard Fheis by calling for compulsory Irish to be taken off the school curriculum in Ireland. Needless to say that his iconoclastic assault on one of the few remaining shibboleths of Ireland's founding republican ideals was shot down before any debate was had on the matter. Abolish Irish? 'An bhfuil se as a mheabhair?'

First of all, 'ideal' is exactly what the restoration of the Irish language ever was and ever will be in Ireland. After Independence, it was believed that Irish could be effectively institutionalised as the mother tongue of the nation. That would show the Empire, right? What better way to distance ourselves from and punish the oppressor than relegate their language to second class status?

Yeah, the thing is, it didn't really work out that way. DeValera gave constitutional status to Irish as the first language of the state in 1937 and it became an essential component for success in schools, universities and the civil service.

'Grá gan chuiteamh' is an Irish term for 'unrequited love'. If ever there was an unrequited love affair, it was between Irish people and the Irish language. It might have loved us but, boy, was that love one-sided.

There's no need to get into the age-old stories of the language "being beaten into" our parents' generation, although that point should be remembered in the context of the present debate (or lack therof).

The fact of the matter is that our official Irish language policy has been an utter failure. Retaining Irish as a mandatory subject in the school curriculum is doing untold damage to the confidence and success of school students. We're not learning it to speak it on a daily basis nor to gain access to the vast majority of jobs in the country.

So why are we still forced to study it in school? Because our forefathers lost their lives so we could speak it. Because we will lose an essential component of our cultural identity.

Our forefathers also gave up their lives so that we could vote to elect our own leaders - yet there are no accusations of historical betrayal when there are appalling voter turnouts in successive Irish elections and referenda.

As for losing an essential component of our cultural identity: I hate to be the one to inform you but we lost that about 150 years ago when the practicalities and realities of life as a part of the British Empire put paid to any future for the Irish language. English was the language of the future - parents encouraged their children to learn it as it was the only hope of securing employment in Britain and its colonies. The importance placed on the role of English in our country not only hindered our abilty to adopt the Irish language- it arguably set the tone for Irish people's generally abysmal aptitude for any foreign language. English was always seen to be the only language that mattered to a nation so chronically dependent on our neighbours directly to our West and East.

Irish was beaten out of people then and beaten back into them after Independence. Government policy failed time and again to find the way to allow the language to grow naturally so that it wouldn't feel imposed. Hence the neverending tales of how people suffered at the hands of this language. No wonder it's seen to be such a drag.

The reality is that more people in Ireland today are unified by the fact that they don't speak the language rather than do. It's a source of dread for so many students in this country. Undoubtedly the way the langauge is taught in school has had an enormous effect on attitudes towards, and success at, attaining the liofa.

Speaking from my own experience, I can say, quite confidently and without reservation, that I had the worst Irish teacher ever seen in an Irish educational establishment. This man, lovely though he was, was drafted into my school to manage the senior hurling team, which is a dubious enough reason for hiring teachers. But then this joke was given the honours leaving cert class to wreak havoc on. Only separate, paid grinds got me through. My grind teacher was inspiring, a native speaker: but the likes of him are few and far between. In fact, I ended up loving the language and even did it in first year in college. But, yet again, atrocious, boring, uninspired teaching soon put an end to any grá I had for the Gaeilge.

The vast majority of Irish teachers in Ireland themselves had terrible teachers - it's a vicious circle of dire teaching and learning methods that has sounded the death knell for a language that was as imposed on the people of this country almost as much as English was. Unless we can clone my grinds teacher from Leaving Cert, there is little that can be done to save the language, and the teaching of it, in its current form.

Only a tiny amount of us can and do speak it on a daily basis. It is not the dominant language of our parliament, arts, media or popular culture. There is an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards it amongst huge number of young people - sure, most say that they would love to be able to speak it, but nobody can nor, more importantly, sees a need to.

So what is to be done? Well, it would serve the language a lot better to take Enda Kenny's initiative and start a real debate about the language. Instead of pursuing pointless, tokenistic gestures like making Irish an official working language of the EU, let's try and work out a realistic future for Irish.

The success at incorporating Irish into the workings of the EU is an embarrassment more than anything else: it draws attention to the fact that hardly any of us here can or will ever speak it. Our European partners would be correct to look at us in puzzlement and ask why on Earth it means so much to us. Surely our history has taught us that laws and officialdom are not going to save a language. A language is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving. It will thrive or perish depending on its use. Irish almost has the same living status as Latin at this stage.

I suggest that the future for Irish belongs in a new school subject: Irish Studies. There has been an alarming drop in the number of students taking History, especially irish history. Irish literature and cultural studies has to compete for attention in a crowded and time-constrained English curriculum. How about a new subject that would be composed of limited language study as well as the study of the works of Irish novelists, poets, playwrites and filmmakers? Folklore and historical topics could be pursued also. That way, those who want to learn the language can. Of course, the abolition of the compulsory element to the language will have an impact on the future learning of the langauge, even in that limited guise (most importantly, will there be any language teachers left after a while?).

I know my suggestion is shaky so tear it apart if you want. But for God's sake, don't ignore the opportunity to discuss options for the survival of the language. Dismissing Enda Kenny's call for a debate on language policy without even considering alternatives might, ironically, ensure the language's demise rather than its salvation.


Gary Freedman said...

Greetings from the USA. Brian is Irish, by the way.

Nicole said...

I think the only way the Irish language will survive is if students are immersed in the language for a minimum of half of their classes. At that point -- if you're taking history and math in Irish -- you at least have to interact and, to a certain extent, think in that language.

Of course, in order to implement that, you need quite a few teachers who can relate that subject in the Irish language. And you need to begin when children enter school.

(If I may -- one of the few positive aspects of the Irish language situation is that there are loads of great learning materials for adult learners...of whom I am one...)