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Language in peril in its homeland

July 23, 2012

Generations of Irish children have gone through a sort of rite of passage – usually, and appropriately enough, when on the threshold of adolescence – which has left them with happy, lifelong memories.

They remember the other- worldly environment of the Gaeltacht, the unusual sounds and sights and smells, like bread baking; and the strange experience of hearing all around them people speaking a language that most children have heard only in the classroom.

But how many are moved to improve their knowledge of the language, or speak or read it, nobody knows.

Now it emerges that the numbers attending Gaeltacht “summer colleges” are falling. Less than 24,000 are expected to travel this year, down from 28,000 four years ago.

At the same time, more and more have registered for courses in European languages.

This points up what might seem a stark choice but is really an irrelevance. There is no conflict between learning Irish and learning French or German. Nor need there be any conflict between the modernisation of Ireland and the preservation of the language, including one of its most charming aspects.

But the Gaeltacht itself is shrinking. Its very existence is in peril. Sceptics question whether the people of the present Gaeltacht areas will still speak Irish in 20 years’ time.

Like the loss of childhood, such a loss could never be repaired.