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Opinion: Will Bliain na Gaeilge turn into Bliain na Begrudgers 2018?

Hold the grudges and pet hates to yourself: Irish is a necessary building block for the economy and culture we need in the future, writes Dermot McNally.

Dermot McNally Writer

I’LL BE WATCHING the public debate about Bliain na Gaeilge 2018 with interest. Twenty five years ago it would have been political suicide: a Fine Gael Taoiseach standing up at his first Ard Fhéis to announce a year long celebration of Irish.

Back in the 1990s the Irish language was still associated with the Christian Brothers, poverty and republicanism. Nowadays an Ghaeilge is mainstream, a source of pride and enjoyment and, dare I say it, our ’máthairtheanga’, is energetic, bold and kinda sexy.

But despite the progress there’s still begrudgers out there who try to present negativity about an Ghaeilge as constructive debate and it’s inevitable that some of this will resurface in 2018.

Our language ability

The first mantra often rehashed by the pessimists is that “we Irish are not renowned for our ability to learn other languages.“  Warning: repeating such nonsense gives children the perfect excuse to justify academic laziness, “But Mammy, I’m no good at languages…”.

Gaelscoileanna have smashed this myth and prove that almost everyone in mainstream education who speaks a first language can make a fair fist at learning a second.

Of course we love to remind ourselves how badly Irish is taught and this was definitely true in the past. But we’ve improved and current methods are closer to those used abroad. Critical differences remain in context: some of us don’t want to learn any language and most of us feel uncomfortable practicing speaking which stifles learning.

It’s different abroad: the global dominance of English ensures continental Europeans are more exposed to English outside of schools and are highly motivated to learn it for career and cultural purposes. They don’t get hung up about making mistakes.

I think we need progressive steps in this area to get children speaking all languages like where the Dutch passed legislation to enable 15% of subjects to be taught through English, French or German in all schools to aid fluency.

Shakespeare is of little use

I’m also guessing that Irish will be singled out by some in 2018 and made out to be the only questionable aspect of our entire educational syllabus. This is unfair since an argument could easily be made to ditch a range of subjects – Shakespeare’s sonnets and glacial formations are of little use to most I suspect.

Thankfully educationalists know a varied syllabus which includes languages has massive cognitive benefits and will help children think independently, analyse and question, not rehash material learned off by heart. Which is why languages will remain at the heart of progressive secondary education systems, especially when we aspire to compete in the knowledge economy.

I’ve often heard it said that Irish was forced down my throat, and while it was true for some it overshadows the truth that children were verbally and physically abused in schools for all kinds of arbitrary reasons including failure to recite by heart times tables etc.

So holding a grudge specifically against the language makes as much sense as blaming the children and is usually only a pretext to demanding an end to compulsory Irish which is absolutely guaranteed an airing in 2018.

Languages aren’t easy but that’s not a reason to remove them: a government review in 2016 found that despite 14 years tuition we are well behind the world’s best at mathematics but no one would propose changing its compulsory status.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

Dumping Irish amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater as languages are indispensable for the cognitive and analytical advantages listed. Others propose dropping Irish in favour of learning an alternative language.

Two issues here: the challenge agreeing a replacement language that might be of increased benefit to more children than Irish would have been. And secondly, implementation would involve the cost and hassle of retraining thousands of teachers in the chosen language. (Good luck negotiating that one with the unions).

It has been unfairly claimed in the past that learning Irish is an educational handicap and it must have worried parents who questioned their child’s ability to learn in two languages. Research proves the brain is an amazing creation and can cope with multiple languages.

Still, despite the shining example of the Danes, the Swiss and others who eat languages for breakfast, worriers warn that completing the Leaving Cert through Irish will lead to difficulties in university. Which is total drivel. This excellent online Irish English dictionary will translate tons of terminology if that ever becomes an issue. Reasons for university drop out can be found here but the list doesn’t include Irish.

A barrier to education?

One of the wackier theories that might resurface in 2018 is that Irish is a bigger barrier to education than religion in Ireland and that Gaelscoil parents are effectively racist for choosing schools which might have less ethnic minorities in them. Elsewhere it’s been alleged that Gaelscoil parents are elitist and choose Gaelscoileanna in a kind of demographic exclusivism.

Other weird conspiracy theories include that civil servants favour Gaelscoileanna and that Gaeilgeoirí are IRA sympathisers. Malicious tripe. You can’t define Irish speakers by religionpolitics or country of birth. We picked a Gaelscoil for our girls for its cultural merit, the mix of boys and girls and the increased linguistic ability to learn other languages. (But I’ll admit that every neo-nazi elitist probably says that.)

Finally, for some it’s just about the spondulas but given that the money spent in education is worth it for the cognitive and analytical benefits mentioned, then the overall amount is reasonable.

And if State support for the Irish summer colleges and industrial development throws a few bob more towards the Gaeltachts then it’s little more than they deserve: the recent Pobal Deprivation Indices listed most of these regions (which lie furthest west along the Atlantic seaboard) as among the most deprived in the country with the highest emigration and lowest earnings per person.

So for the sake of the tens of thousands of little kiddies out there who are blissfully happy ag caint is ag geabaireacht please keep constructive debate coming during Bliain na Gaeilge 2018 but hold the grudges and pet hates to yourself: Irish is a necessary building block for the economy and culture we need in the future.

Dermot McNally is a Monaghan based writer and poet and blogs at dermymcnally.com.

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