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LANGUAGE DIVIDE

February 24, 2011

Fine Gael’s proposal that Irish should be an optional subject in the Leaving Certificate is dividing opinion even among enthusiasts. Here we present both sides of the issue.

FOR

Compulsory Irish only fosters resentment, writes Tomás Mac Eochagáin

LIKE “compulsory” redundancy, compulsory Irish is an extraordinarily unwelcome and blunt instrument. Unquestionably, for many students, its continued retention can only serve to sustain a long-lasting resentment and antagonism towards the language. The recent discussion on the Irish language is most welcome. Even better was the fluency of the television debate in Irish by the leaders of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil which showed it is no longer the unique preserve or inheritance of one political tradition, but a modern shared language capable of effortlessly accommodating detailed discussion and robust argument about all aspects of our lives.

For too long, much of what has passed for policy has been blinded by emotional affection or disaffection. The perceived political wisdom was to let “sleeping dogs lie” while maintaining superficial support for the language through patronising use of the “cúpla focal”.  Those fond of Irish know that the political rhetoric was rarely backed by real support. Why else would we see public road signs to “Gaineamh” (Sand) instead of “Gaillimh” (Galway), and signs for pedestrians stating “Féach Ceart” (look correct) instead of “Féach ar dheis” (look right)?

National critical reflection has found so many of our systems unfit for purpose, exposing deficiencies in financial regulation, the Church, our health system, and the reduction in the literacy and mathematical abilities of our children when compared to their international counterparts. Surely it is no longer heresy to question whether our current policies in relation to the development and use of the Irish language are optimal.  In removing emotion from the debate, it is worth stating key facts. ‘Compulsory Irish’ for the Leaving Certificate requires students who have already been taught Irish for 10 or 11 years to be taught Irish for a further two years. No such requirement exists in relation to mathematics, english or any other subject. This requirement applies irrespective of whether the student likes or dislikes Irish, and is entirely indifferent to his or her ability, anticipated attainment level and future career aspirations.

There have been huge educational developments, both nationally and internationally, in respect of “£learning outcomes” and common language frameworks which exist for all European languages including Irish. Yet, despite these improvements, students are not required to actually “learn” Irish or to gain any particular “competence” ” whether it’s simply to have enough Irish to ask directions and order food, to hold a conversation with a friend, or to assimilate and produce highly specialised discipline specific material. The earlier requirements for specific attainment levels in order to enter certain professions and university courses have in the main, long since been removed.  At this critical juncture in Ireland’s development, it is entirely appropriate to review the effectiveness of compulsory Irish.

Fortunately, modern Ireland is inclusive and tolerant. Its workforce is educated. Increasingly, it is extending the democratic values, rights and entitlements of its citizens to make informed choices about how they live their lives, while requiring they in turn respect the different preferences made by others.  Importantly, none of these social developments have been advanced through compulsion. Non-smokers do not require smokers to quit smoking. Sexual and religious rights were not advanced through the imposition of counter practices on others. Similarly, removing compulsory Irish need not equate with its prohibition or unavailability for others. Modern Ireland can and does embrace Irish. The gaelscoileanna are flourishing. TG4 has given us a new and refreshingly open generation of competent bilingualists who are unrecognisable from the “gaeilgeoirs” of the past. In their debate, Enda, Eamon and Micheál presented a modern Ireland, equally competent in both English and Irish, and without the pretence or baggage of the “fáinne”.

The recent language act affords every citizen the right to conduct his or her business “as gaeilge”. This is entirely appropriate as more than 1.6 million people stated that they can speak Irish (Census 2006). What’s needed now is joined-up cost-effective thinking and implementation  As we already can choose to eat vegetarian meals in smoke-free restaurants, surely it is not beyond our national capacity to plan for restaurants with bilingual menus and even dare to dream of having one staff-member capable of mastering the limited vocabulary involved in taking an order.  Who knows, by Irish becoming visible, it could become audible. After all, “beatha teanga í a labhairt”. In the current straitened times, modern Ireland could immediately cease the translation of all county development plans, and instead provide funding support for more effective language development.
The debate on compulsory Irish and the passionate responses and protests it has prompted are to be welcomed. For once, let the thinking begin. Beir Bua.
- Tomás Mac Eochagáin, director of academic programmes, Griffith College, Dublin.

AGAINST

Making Irish optional will irreparably damage the language, says Áine Ní Shléibhín FILL a room with people and ask them if Irish should be made optional for the Leaving Certificate, and there is no faster way to create a divide – it is a divisive issue. People’s opinion of the Irish language is very much coloured by their own experience. Many people have had a very bad experience of the language and their views reflect that. I have chosen to write this article based on my experiences of the language, which have been positive.

I have watched the political debates, read letters to the editor and commentary pieces with interest. Why bother with Irish? Sure, no one speaks the language anyway? Ireland should concentrate its efforts on looking to international markets, international languages. Yes, it should. The world is getting smaller and speaking another language is an advantage. Butwhy should this be at the expense of our own language? There are a number of myths surrounding the language, including that Irish is archaic. I disagree. Irish is alive and well. It is a vibrant, living language. It’s also a working language for many people every day. I have been fortunate to have worked through the medium of Irish since I have left college. I began working in Irish language television production, on programmes such as Ros na Rún, Bean an Tí and Paisean Faisean. All of my colleagues over the years have been talented, skilled people; cameramen, sound technicians, directors and producers, all of whom conduct their business through the medium of Irish. I am currently working with Gael-Taca, an Irish language organisation based in Cork city centre. Irish has never hindered my employment opportunities – it has enhanced them.

Irish adds value to business, as it is appreciated by customers. Visibility of the language is also attractive to tourists and adds to the authentic Irish image of business. Gaillimh le Gaeilge recently commissioned a report to find out the economic value of the language to Galway city and county. They found that the Irish language is worth EUR136 million annually to the economy in Galway. Irish is alive and well and generating jobs, even in these difficult times. Gael-Taca is working with businesses in Cork to increase the visibility of the language and enhance the landscape of our own city for Corkonians and tourists. The Irish language is an inherent part of our identity. In western society, dominated by global brands and images, where everyone and everything is the same, Irish is the one unique thing that Ireland has.

Irish is our language, it is a valuable asset. It transcends race, class, colour and creed. An Ghaeilge belongs to everyone who is Irish. It is independent of the IMF, bank bailouts and the recession, though it is all too often politicised. The Irish language is one of our greatest exports. Irish is now taught in universities in the US, Canada and Australia. Ironically, a large number of my friends who have had to emigrate have gone to teach Irish in these areas. Making Irish optional for Leaving Certificate will have a massive impact on the teaching of the subject from primary level. Its importance will be diluted beyond repair. The most frightening thing about this decision is that it will be so difficult to reverse.

There are undoubted problems with the teaching of Irish. There are issues to be addressed. Why not look at Irish in primary schools and make people’s experience of the language more positive from a young age? Put more emphasis on Irish as a communicative language – eg have another class such as art or PE through Irish, so that children learn to speak Irish in a natural way. So should the language be made optional for the Leaving Certificate? No. The long-term ramifications for the language would be catastrophic. Let us move forward out of recession and into the future as a multicultural, multilingual, diverse society. But at the heart of this, let us cherish and protect our own language. If we don’t, who will?

- Áine Ni Shléibhín
Gael-Taca, Corcaigh le Gaeilge

Irish Examiner