Feb 21, 2011

Head-to-Head: The Irish Language Debate

FG Irish policy is short-sighted

Eugene Reavey

Lets face it, Irish is a bloody hard language. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam, it’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s easily forgotten as you work through an modh coinníollach, and try frantically to find out what the hell the genitive case is, and how it works. French, Spanish and the other romantic languages, sound so much better, and are so much more accessible. So why would anybody risk their precious A1 by choosing Irish? The reason being at the minute of course, that they have no choice. However, Fine Gael are on a crusade to ensure that leaving cert students can maximise their points with the minimum fuss possible.
So what’s the problem? The problem is of course that Irish is, and remains the first official language of this country. It is the native language of this Island. It is also on the brink of extinction. At present, every leaving cert student leaves school with at least some proficiency in the language. This has not stopped the language from falling into serious decline. And yet Fine Gael in their wisdom have contrived a policy which states that the language should be optional at leaving cert level.
The rationale is that student’s who really want to study Irish will continue into leaving cert level with real enthusiasm, and in the long run, this will encourage more and more students to pick Irish of their own volition. This has already been shown to be a failed policy. In the UK Labour Ministers predicted the same outcome after making languages optional at GCSE Level. The result has been a 1/3 decline in numbers taking languages and only a minority of students achieving the top grades. The results in the leaving cert system could be even more detrimental. The  focus in the leaving centres largely on memory retention and regurgitation as opposed to the English system which favours a more analytical approach to learning. Irish imposes strong demands on any student learning the language, and were it to be made optional, it simply wouldn’t make sense for a budding doctor to jeopardise his place in Trinity by picking the Irish language.
This short sightedness is of course forgivable in the case of leaving cert students. However, it is unforgivable coming from the leaders of Fine Gael. One can’t help but reach the conclusion that this is a lazy approach to a serious problem. Irish as the official language of this State should be given upmost priority. The syllabus in place and the way Irish is taught is unsatisfactory. Too much emphasis is placed on exam technique, with the result that apart from a few stock phrases learnt off for the oral, students leave school with relatively poor conversational Irish. More emphasis should surely be placed on the oral and aural skills of students. The answer is not to make the subject optional, but to diversify and enliven the cirruculm to ensure that young people are genuinely enthused about learning their native language. These sentiments were echoed strongly outside Fine Gael headquarters, where a USI representative handed over a petition with over 15,000 signatures decrying the policy. Other political parties in the Dáil have advocated an overhaul of the cirrculum, whilst Sinn Féin have announced that they would introduce a government minister to oversee a 20 year regeneration project of the language. All such proposals must be welcomed.
There would also be huge economic consequences for Ireland’s Gaeltacht communities if this policy was implemented. Each year over 25,000 students attend rural gaeltacht language courses generating over €50 million for these areas. It’s clear that there are few opportunites in Ireland’s isolated gaeltacht’s, and the money that these courses generate is absolutely vital to the continuance of a strong and vibrant Gaeltacht communities. The shrinking of these communities has continued at an exponential rate, as young native speakers leave in search of jobs and opprtunities. This process must be reversed as a matter of urgency.
A poet once lamented, “i measc mo dhaoine tá tobar an fhíoruisce ag dul i ndíchuimhne,” or in English “among my people the springwell is being forgotten.”  It is past the time that we realise what we have in the Irish language, how lucky we are the language has survived this far, and endeavour to ensure the language grows from strength to strength.

Irish just isn’t wanted by our generation

Daniel Harrington


The recent emergence of a group on Facebook has achieved a mighty feat and, instead of wishing FB installed a ‘dislike’ button, it actually got me thinking. The group says that “An Irish essay just isn’t complete without GO TOBANN!”  ‘Go tobann’ means suddenly in English and every Leaving Cert examiner goes through the same ritual every year – namely putting a little approving tick beside that phrase to congratulate us on writing a story containing some urgency and sudden movement. Go tobann is just one of the popular phrases thrown in to spice up the aiste on Páipéar 1 in the Leaving Cert. Is mór an tsláinte ná na táinte. Is minic a bhris beál duine a shrón. In English, we call these phrases small talk, clichés. But in Irish, they are rewarded by a system ignoring the fact that they are mindlessly learned off by heart and instead, they are foolishly looked upon as signs of fluency in na daoine óga.
Irish is, as Enda Kenny pointed out on TG4, a core subject in the Leaving Certificate. It is one forced upon every student in the country, barring a few exemptions. Peig may be dead and buried but the ghost of compulsory Irish still remains for the meantime. A Fine Gael-lead government would change all this, it is claimed. In their recently published manifesto, the election frontrunners plan to abolish an Ghaeilge as a compulsory subject and install it as an optional choice on the curriculum. This has been met with typical indignant outrage by the other political parties as well as a certain amount of public disgust that our national language could be relegated to such a level. Tír gan teanga, Tír gan anam they would cry! But, as it stands, we might as well be a country without a language! The Fine Gael policy is not designed to put the final nail in the coffin. The aim is actually to revitalise the language so that muintir na hÉireann will stand up and want to learn the language rather than allowing it to sink into apathetic decay.
Students every year in the Leaving Cert experience a brief flirtation with fluency around the time of their oral exams. Seanfhocals and metaphors are then rhymed off for the written paper before the traditional 6th year holiday removes any trace of Gaeilge from the system. Why? Irish just isn’t wanted by the younger generation. If they wanted it, they would use it. People would argue that Irish is widely used among the younger population and that we want to be able to learn our native tongue. The Fine Gael policy doesn’t stop us doing this. By making Irish a choice, those who wish to study Irish can do so without an obstacle. Why force those who don’t want to study Irish to sit in the classroom and attempt to describe the imagery in a poem or the theme of a short story? – younger people don’t respond well to being forced to do something. Giving people the choice – this is the key. Irish classrooms would be filled with those who positively wanted to learn the language, those who voluntarily signed up for the course. This scenario would lead to flowing fluency. An enthusiastic experience in the classroom where there was no negativity. Those who were there would be there because of their grá don teanga. Making Irish optional wouldn’t destroy it – it gives people the freedom of choice and recognises the reality that forcing people to do Leaving Cert Irish still won’t keep the language alive.
According to the 2006 Census by the CSO, 1,656,790 people mark themselves as being Irish speakers. 2,400, 856 said they cannot speak Irish. These figures would be respectable but they hide the truth of the matter. How many of these million and a half people use Irish as their first language? How often is it used on a daily basis? Saying ‘Go raibh maith agat’ to a customer in my local shop certainly warrants a raised eyebrow or a frown. Less than half the country can speak the national language. The newspaper ‘Foinse’ went out of business. Admittedly, it is now available in the Irish Independent but only as a free supplement. In the culture of accountability and waste nowadays, how many letters of complaint have been drafted about the correction of signs so that Irish is displayed or the expensive translation of all official documents (including EU documents since 2007) into Irish? The current method of force-feeding Irish to adolescents has failed. Those who can speak Irish do so because they want to learn it. Those who were forced to learn it but can still not speak it are those who complain loudest about it. A shift towards wanting to speak the language in school won’t harm Irish – it will revitalise the language and allow for a younger generation who actively and enthusiastically choose Irish as a language of life.
The Leaving Cert is currently an unfriendly curriculum – an oral exam, an aural exam and two difficult papers at Honours level leads to a fairly voluminous course. Alongside eight poems, there are five possible short stories, an essay question, and comprehensions. As it stands, this would not be an attractive option for any 16 year old to choose, which is why the curriculum must be altered for this policy to work. Fine Gael, in making Irish optional plan to incentivise the youth to learn Irish – making the Leaving Cert students want to do it. Improving the standard of teachers, restoring the balance to the workload and offering bonus points for Irish – these incentives will fuel the desire of younger students to keep their language alive. The compulsory, comprehension-based curriculum of the last 10-20 years has failed. Irish is in dire straits and needs incentivised enthusiasm soon otherwise the decline will deepen. Focus on conversation, getting people talking – use is the best way to both learn and retain a language. Again, forced used will not solve this problem but allowing these young adults the positive choice will reinforce the strength of their love for the language.

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