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It’s still there, but barely alive

February 24, 2011

SOMETHING UNUSUAL happened this week

 Courtesy of the leaders’ debate on TG4 the Irish language was the centre of the national discourse. The three party leaders were eloquent in the national language, happy to discuss subordinated debt and the like as Gaeilge. But many viewers were, no doubt, grateful for the subtitles. For them, Irish is not a living language. In the 2006 census more than 1.6 million people said they “have” Irish but more than one million of these admitted they rarely, if ever, spoke it. About 72,000 people, fewer than 5 per cent of us, use the language daily outside education. But if Irish has a marginal presence outside schools, it has a leading, some would say dominant, role inside them.

In most primary schools children will spend more than three hours per week learning the subject, about 15 per cent of teaching time. By comparison, the teaching of science accounts for only 4 per cent of instruction time. Despite this investment few teachers believe we are making progress. One senior figure says:”“Kids have a genuine grá for the language in infant classes but most lose their love of the language by the end of second class. They want to speak the language, not focus on grammar and reading.” At second level an army of teachers provide Irish-language instruction for the Junior and Leaving Cert exams. Overall, An Coimisinéir Teanga, who functions as an ombudsman service in relation to State services through Irish, estimates that a student will receive almost 1,500 hours of tuition in the Irish language over 13 years of primary and secondary education.The most up-to-date figures (from 2004) indicate that Irish-language education was costing up to EUR500 million a year. Despite this, many young people cannot conduct a conversation in Irish.

Languages expert Dr Kevin Williams, of the Mater Dei Institute, says the official policy of ensuring that people are able to use the language has been a “manifest failure”. “As an enthusiastic Irish-speaker, both professionally and socially, I agree with making Irish as visible as English in the public space. This enthusiasm for speaking Irish is not widely shared and I have ceased to be surprised at the lack of knowledge of the language among many people,” he says. “I have come across young people who, after 11 or 12 years of being forced to learn the language, hardly know one single word of it. Young people have a right and entitlement to learn Irish, but the essence of rights and entitlements is the freedom not to exercise them. Therefore, after the Junior Certificate Irish should no longer be compulsory.”

Last year, at 82 per cent, the percentage of students taking the Leaving Cert Irish exam was at its lowest level since records began.Increasing numbers of students are seeking an exemption from Irish. While many of these are genuine cases (special needs, immigrants, and so on), others are simply trying to sidestep the exam. In 2008 there was controversy when it was revealed that many of those who secured an exemption from Irish were taking other foreign languages. One Irish teacher says: “For those of us who love the language there is this awful sense that the Irish language is on a life-support machine in schools – still there, but barely alive … I sense a growing resentment, particularly among middle-class parents, about their children being forced to learn Irish.”

Ireland is the only European country where study of a foreign language is not compulsory at any stage of education. Only 8 per cent of Irish secondary-school students learn two or more foreign languages, compared with the European average of 60 per cent. In pushing for the abolition of compulsory Irish in the Leaving Cert, Fine Gael has tapped into negative feelings about the language. Its policy has raised awkward questions about our true commitment to the language.

The Irish Times – Seán Flynn