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Column: Gaeilge is a part of our culture – how it's taught matters

The poetry, prose and history of the Irish language should be taken out of the current course and put into a separate, optional subject for advanced students – while “Irish Language” should be taught to every student as a core subject, writes Aodhán Ó Deá.

Aodhán Ó Deá

CAN YOU SPEAK Irish? If not, then why not? The generic response I get from people who can’t speak Irish these days is simply “Well, It’s the way it is taught in school”. Let’s do something about that then! Ninety-three per cent of the country say they would like to see the Irish language preserved or revived (ESRI 2008 research). So it’s safe to say the majority of the country has good will towards the language – then why don’t we do anything to fix what most people identify as the main problem with it – our education system?

Just over two years ago there was huge controversy when Fine Gael proposed making Irish optional for the Leaving Certificate. This proposal gets dragged up any time people talk about the language in our education system. The proposal frustrated me, due both to the lack of research into the damage this could do to the Irish language, and the short-sightedness of such an approach as a solution to a much bigger problem. Fine Gael have since shelved this proposal but what frustrates me more than the proposal itself is the complete lack of action to fix the basic problem. We need to radically reform the way the Irish language is taught in school.

Irish for the Junior & Leaving Certificate

A two-subject approach is needed for the state examinations. Take the poetry, prose and history of the Irish language out of the current course and expand it into a separate, optional subject for advanced students, something akin to Applied Maths. “Irish Language” as a main subject would be taught to every student as a core subject with a renewed emphasis on understanding, speaking and writing the language. This subject would also cover language awareness and should be taught and assessed using the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

The effects of simply making Irish optional would be hugely detrimental to the language. The approach of making languages optional is now recognised as a massive mistake in the UK where numbers taking foreign languages halved within 10 years of being made optional. I believe the effect would be even worse here in Ireland. Languages are currently harder to study for at Leaving Certificate level and making it optional will leave Irish competing with subjects which people consider easier, less work or maybe need for college (eg Biology for medicine). At present, Irish is a much longer course with 2 papers, aural and oral exams totalling almost 6 hours of exams compared to most other subjects which are 2 or 3-hour exams. Students would be deterred from learning Irish at a younger age if they knew it was optional later in the curriculum, with a knock-on effect the whole way through the education system. This could lead to Irish no longer being available in every school and people not even having the option to learn their national language if numbers are too low.

Primary Level

We need to take the language out of the classroom with more focus on it being a language as opposed to just a subject. To this effect, a second subject should be taught through Irish in every primary school in the country – Art, Physical Education or Drama are some examples of subjects which could help give people a more enjoyable experience of the language.

Twenty-five per cent of adults surveyed say they would prefer to send their children to Irish-medium education, yet currently just over 4 per cent of all primary schools in Ireland are Gaelscoileanna. Irish-medium education has been incredibly successful – all studies show how Irish medium schools do better in English, Maths and Irish than English speaking schools when socioeconomically matched. We need to fix this imbalance where supply is currently far less than demand.

Attitudes

Finally it’s not all about the way Irish is taught in school. Regularly people tell me they “can’t string a sentence of Irish together.” If you cannot put a sentence together after learning Irish for 14 years in school, you are to blame as much as the education system. There is a mental block where people don’t want to learn the language and blame the education system. However bad your teacher was, it is pretty hard to go through 14 years of any subject and not remember anything at all. As an Irish speaker, I see it every day where so many people have an attitude against the language, where people will call me rude or ignorant for speaking my language in public. What I have found is that people do have Irish- with a small bit of practice it comes back very fast. There are hundreds of courses, conversation circles and events all around the country to help you along. Our own attitude towards the language needs to change as much as our education system.

Last week was Seachtain na Gaeilge - a week where thousands of events are organised all over the country to promote the Irish language. There are lots of new and exciting things happening for the language – particularly at third level – where I learnt most of my own Irish socially. We have seen a huge growth in interest in the language with 26 Irish societies at third level organising weekly events and campaigns. You may be surprised to find out that 1 in 3 people in this country can speak Irish at some level – get out and give it a go! Whether you like the language or not – it is part of who we are. The only language out of 6,700 in the world that we can claim is uniquely ours.

Tá cóip den alt seo ar fáil as Gaeilge ar mo bhlag ag www.aodhanodea.ie

Aodhán Ó Deá works to promote the Irish language at second and third level. His job is co-funded by five different Irish-language organisations and he spends most of his time on the road talking to schools or organising events and campaigns for the language at third level. He blogs at www.aodhanodea.ie.

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