"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Gaeilge and schools

Richard's post regarding the Irish language and the Leaving Cert received some sceptical comments. Instead of commenting at Sicilian Notes, I'll say my piece here.

At present, unless one has an exemption (for example because of past residence outside the country) an examination in the Irish language is a compulsory component of the Leaving Cert. However only a small and shrinking minority speak Irish as their first language; outside a small number of places, few speak it with any degree of aptitude. It is never used in commerce, education or daily life. For most Irish citizens, most of the time, it is to all intents and purposes a foreign tongue, in the sense that we cannot understand it. Personally I had a good standard of Irish when I left school. If there were no subtitles, I could understand the gist of what was being said on An Nuacht or TG4. I have no antipathy towards the language. That said, I have practically never had recourse to it since school.

It would not be a good thing if our national language went the way of Latin. Much of our heritage is locked up in literature and writings as Gaeilge. When compared to most countries who have an indigenous that has survived into the 21st century (and languages are dying out all the time), our competence at our own tongue can fairly be described as pitiful. It's funny to use it to confuse foreigners but ultimately it is black humour. We are not a credit to ourselves linguistically; it was shown recently that we are at (or near, I cannot recall precisely) the bottom of the EU table for speaking (any) second language: Monoglots are we.

I would like to see Irish revived. I think it is possible, but that current policies are not moving matters in that direction. This debate entered the political sphere as a result of a speech given by Opposition leader Enda Kenny in November when he argued that the language should be optional at Leaving Cert level. I heard Kenny speak on the point here at U.C.C. in January. He is fluent Irish speaker; I think therefore it should be accepted that he has a genuine affinity for the language and is not approaching this from a party political angle. In any event, his arguments are cogent. As Eoin Ó Murchú wrote in Village at the time:
The main point that Enda Kenny is making is, however, unanswerable. Despite the average pupil having over 1,500 hours of tuition in Irish spread over 14 years, the vast majority of students leave our schools completely unable to hold a simple conversation, or even spell Irish names correctly. This is a sorry commentary on the Department of Education and on teachers.
Ó Murchú goes on to argue that Kenny's conclusion from those facts is incorrect. I would disagree. The reality is that a small number of students (probably one in five) takes Irish at honours level for the Leaving Cert. With all due respect to the students and teachers involved, the lower level paper is a joke. It demeans the Irish language and wastes time, energy and resources. In effect, therefore, probably 80% of students leave school already with a level of Irish that is of no use or benefit to them or society. The only issue is whether politicians are prepared to say that coercing the unwilling to take the language is an intelligent method of ensuring it has a future. I think the Government should say this is not so. Every year thousands of students spend thousands of unproductive hours rote learning irrelevantly basic constructions, in order to repeat them one day in June, so that they won't fail their Leaving. They could be far more usefully and enjoyably study something else.

The most vibrant part of the modern Irish movement, after all, is the Gaelscoileanna where all subjects are taken through Irish. Parents opt to send their children there; the schools tend to be highly regarded. Experimentation is the way to solve the Irish problem. The current compulsory system is a facade. It does the language no service. Clearly much more needs to be done than simply revoking the compulsion at Leaving Cert (the honours course, for one thing, should not have such an emphasis on poetry and literature; instead the time and weight given to speaking the language should be increased, preferrably by 100%), but it would be a start.


Blogger Laughman said...

The main thrust of Irish teaching in school should be towards spoken Irish. In fact, conversational Irish should be the only Irish taught in primary schools.

If you think about the way children learn language at home, the first thing they do is learn the spoken word. Only later do concepts such as reading, writing and grammar come into play.

Once kids can speak Irish, everything else becomes much easier.

Tue Feb 28, 03:20:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...the Gaelscoileanna where all subjects are taken through English"

You mean through Irish.

Tue Feb 28, 03:36:00 PM GMT  
Blogger Karole said...

thanks; duly noted and corrected

Thu Mar 02, 08:33:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I echo the above, in that alot of the Irish language is being lost in the text books.

It has to be noted that Irish isn't the only subject in secondary schools that is being treated with apathy.For instance, there are fewer students now doing science subjects at higher levels (or even any level for that matter)(forgive me for not having the statistices).

It seems really that what's happening in the class rooms is that teachers spend most of their time discipling and less time educating. Consequently this means we have a lesser knowledge of say Irish. (Perhaps, students care more about text messages and their phones than the blackboard. However I know I'm generalising too much here.)

I'm digressing, so I'll come back to the bottom line , Gaeilge.

It's a fine language. It's a shame it's going ar strae. Many fond nights I've spend in the Gaeltacht dancing Baile Luimni/Ionsai na hInse (I can only speak these names of dances not spell them, so sorry for bad spelling)...or doing rince seite and the good ol' timpeall an ti. I really loved the poems and stories I learnt in Irish at school too. It would be awful if these were to stop being taught. I remember those great fun books of Aililiu Bop Siuadi and Imithe.

I'm glad to see Gaelscoils are making a come back ( I think there are deeper reasons for this, which I won't go into).

Maybe it's not until our language is lost that the Irish may only appreciate it's worth, like Latin to the Romans. Who knows.

Perhaps we care more now about the subjects that will shape our career and bring us lots of money than we do about the ones that give us our culture, shape our personalities and give us good old Irish Ceili memories.

Great Blog.

Fri Mar 03, 04:19:00 PM GMT  

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