The latest issue of the Chartered Institute of Linguist’s magazine has an article about the renaissance in Irish language learning amongst those with no roots or connections to Ireland. It’s great to see that word getting out that Irish is very much alive and kicking. Journalist Siofra Brennan also does a good job of outlining the way in which these adult learners have acquired a good degree of fluency in the language, despite living in the UK.
However, for me, this article missed the point. As a linguist, I’m not surprised at why these people chose to learn Irish. It’s a fascinating language, with a complex grammar that makes it very different to the other languages most Europeans learn at school. It also has a fascinating (and often highly romanticised) history as the oldest spoken literary language in Europe.
I’m not even surprised about the where. There’s a wealth of beginners Irish language-learning material to be found both online and offline, especially in north London. I would even argue that there are more resources available outside of Ireland than there are in, but that’s a post for another day.
What I am curious to know is how hundreds of thousands of Irish adults at home and abroad, having learnt Irish throughout their compulsory education and possibly beyond, can ensure they maintain or even further build on their existing language skills.
I suppose I found this article particularly timely as I’ve grown increasingly frustrated over the years in my own attempts to maintain my Irish. I actually dropped into the offices of Gael Linn, an organisation which claims to support Irish language learners, during a recent trip to Dublin. I quizzed them on the options available for people like me, who have more than a beginners level of Irish but who are unwilling or unable to spend weeks at a time living in one of the Gaeltachtaí. Incredibly, for anyone unable to commute into the centre of Dublin for classes three hours, two evenings a week (so, quite a few Irish people, then…), there is nothing. No suitable books, worksheets, online classes or distance learning materials. Nada. Zilch.
(Please don’t email me to tell me about the embarrassingly gammy “multimedia language course” (i.e. DVD) called Turas Teanga, which features a blonde woman driving around Ireland in what’s supposed to be a sexy car, having unlikely and inane conversations in Irish along the way. Not even the most committed Gaelophile could find something to love there.)
I acknowledge that there is a range of Irish-language broadcast media which is the envy of minority language promoters the world over, with plenty of freely available TV, radio and internet content (I can especially recommend this podcast and this website). But not everyone has the skills or motivation levels to base their entire language exposure on reading and/or listening, especially when it doesn’t form part of a broader learning experience.
How can an organisation like Gael Linn claim to promote the language when they have completely ignored a huge tract of learners, people who have already acquired the basics but just want to brush up or maintain what’s already there?
Having said all this, I can certainly understand the need to divert resources towards beginner language learners. In a country where the percentage of immigration has risen faster in 10 years than over a half century in Britain, the Irish language could offer an exciting point of national unity on the changing face of the Irish Republic.
But I’m not asking for national funding. This is a service I’m willing to pay for and I’d bet I’m not the only one, which surely denotes a real gap in the market.
And this is where I think the real problem lies with the Irish language today. It would seem that to the Irish government, it’s not about how well you speak the language or the confidence with which you use it, it’s about increasing the number of people who claim an undefined level of “competence” in the language. But that’s just not good enough.
Anyone who has been through the Irish education system will have achieved a reasonably good level of competence in Irish. The chances are though, these skills will have fallen quite quickly into a state of rusty disrepair as attentions turn to developing other more marketable skills on leaving school. Fair enough.
Yet once further education has been taken care of, jobs have been secured, and the humdrum of daily life takes over, many of us remember Irish very fondly and with great pride, and – I believe – would gladly return to using it more regularly. But aside from the small numbers of speakers living in the Gaeltachtaí, there are very few structured learning opportunities to help us achieve the confidence required to whip out the cúpla focail once again.
We’re not talking about an insignificant number of people either. We’re basically looking at most Irish adults living in the Republic outside the Gaeltachtaí. Plus, a potentially significant number of the over 1.2 million Irish-born immigrants worldwide, who arguably may be even more motivated to re-learn a language that reminds them of “home” and of their childhood.
Attitudes towards Irish among Irish people
One of the learners featured in Brennan’s article spoke about the apathy she sensed towards the Irish language, especially among young people in Ireland. I would argue that the situation is a lot more complicated than that.
First, it’s a compulsory part of the education system in the Republic, and these are young people – of course she’ll sense a degree of apathy, especially if the curriculum is anything as dull as what it was when I was in school. (Remember, our education system is similar to the International Baccalaureate in style, with 6 – 7 subjects taken to Leaving Certificate level, i.e. English, Irish, Maths, another foreign language, and two optional subjects.)
Second, and most importantly, Irish people living in the Republic feel a strange mixture of emotions when it comes to the Irish language.
Over 40% of people surveyed in the Republic of Ireland census last year claimed they were competent in the language, and although the reality of this figure is frequently disputed (and indeed ridiculed), it still speaks volumes. Not of our actual language levels but of the pride we feel towards our first national language. Yet even among the most committed of Irish speakers, there is also a sense of unease around the practicality of making Irish an official language of the EU. I would also guess at feelings of guilt (a compulsory component of Irishness, after all :)), and maybe even shame and quiet despair too. The Irish government has spent millions to promote the language and gain it the recognition it deserves, yet those who live in Ireland often have very little confidence in their ability to use it, despite years of education. Surely all the more reason to provide this group with suitable language learning resources.
My call to arms
So to the Irish government, I say: the Irish people have had enough of the Irish language being hijacked for political purposes – give us a break and let us sort out for ourselves what our language means to us, away from all the political posturing.
To volunteer language organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge, Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, Gael Linn, Coláiste na bhFiann, Glór na nGael and Comhluadar, I say: Don’t forget about the rest of us! We’re waving our wallets at you, if you’d only care to look.
Finally, with a nod to a particular pet peeve of mine, to everyone else (including the Irish) I say: stop referring to the Irish language as “Gaelic”. It’s sloppy and inaccurate. French is a Romance language, but you wouldn’t call it Romance, would you? The same applies to Irish. It’s Irish, Gaeilge, or if you must use generalisations, one of several Goidelic or Gaelic languages.