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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Column Debunking the most common 'alternative facts' about the Irish language
There is no reason Ireland couldn’t be wealthy and successful if more of us spoke Irish, writes Colm Ó Broin.

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of talk this week about the Irish language. Claire Byrne had a passionate debate on Monday night on RTÉ 1.

The Language Commissioner, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, declared on Tuesday that the system of Language Schemes, which started in 2004 and were to provide services in Irish, has failed. And, of course the census figures published yesterday show a slight reduction in the numbers who have Irish in the country.

It’s very apt, therefore, to have a look at some of the many myths surrounding the Irish language, some of them are centuries old while others have only developed recently. I am going to take a look at the most common of these “alternative facts”.

“Irish is a dead language”

Census figures from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland show that almost 2 million people have some knowledge of the Irish language. A Millward Brown survey from 2015 showed that 1.2 million people in Ireland are confident in their ability to speak Irish.

In terms of fluency, the Irish Language Survey carried out by Amárach Research in 2013 showed that almost 500,000 people across Ireland can have a conversation in Irish and another 150,000 have “native speaker fluency.” Even this figure would give Irish more fluent speakers than most languages in the world.

According to the linguistic project, Ethnologue, half of the world’s languages have 7,000 or less speakers. So by any rational definition, the Irish language is alive.

“Ireland would be poor if we spoke Irish”

Ireland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but some people think we would be poorer if we spoke Irish as we wouldn’t be able to trade with other nations.

If you believe this, just ask yourself a very basic question, are there any rich countries in the world that don’t speak English as their first language? Looking at a global list of national wealth (GNI) shows that there are many non-English speaking nations that are wealthy. Some of them are even richer than Ireland, like Denmark and Sweden.

They’ve also been richer than Ireland for generations, meaning that they haven’t had the massive problems of unemployment and emigration that Ireland has had. There is no reason Ireland couldn’t be wealthy and successful if more of us spoke Irish.

“Gaelscoileanna are elitist”

Over 50,000 children attend Irish-language schools (Gaelscoileanna) outside of Gaeltacht regions in Ireland. Some of these schools are located in middle class areas and for some reason this has been used by people to claim that Gaelscoileanna in general are somehow “elitist”.

However, children from every social class in Ireland attend Irish-medium schools. For example, over half of the primary level Gaelscoileanna in Dublin and Belfast are in working class areas.

In recent years some people have tried to explain the growth in Irish-medium education as a result of racism, that is parents not wanting their children to be in the same school as children whose parents come from abroad. While there may be some parents who have this motivation, to stereotype all Gaelscoil parents as racists because of the actions of a few is prejudiced in itself.

Irish-medium education is available and welcoming to children from all backgrounds.

“Irish shouldn’t be an official EU language”

Some people believe that the official status of Irish in the European Union is tokenism and a waste of money. However, since the Irish became an official language of the EU in 2007 more Irish has been spoken in the European Parliament than Estonian or Maltese.

In some years more Irish has been spoken than Latvian, which has over 2 million speakers, and Danish, which has over 5 million. Irish is a real, working language of the European Union.

The EU institutions employ translators and interpreters for all 24 of the EU’s official languages. They spend around €1.1 billion on language services every year (less than 1% of the total EU budget).

The cost of the entire language services works out at about €2.20 per year for each EU citizen – less than 5c a week, an even tinier fraction of which is spent on the Irish language.

“Irish isn’t compatible with modern technology”

Irish is one of the top 100 languages used on the internet. Gmail, Facebook, Linux, Joomla!, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Office are just some of the software resources and programmes available in Irish.

Twitter has only been translated to approximately 50 languages, and one of those is Irish. Over 2.3 million people from countries all around the world have downloaded the Duolingo app to learn Irish.

Samsung provide predictive text in Irish as well as an Irish-language option for their smartphones, while a huge variety of apps in Irish are available on Android and iPhone.

Kevin Scannell, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at St Louis University in the US, led the original open source Irish localisation of Mozilla and has developed an Irish spell checker, grammar checker, and thesaurus, as well as dictionaries and translation engines that support Irish.

“We don’t have to speak Irish”

Having read the passages above you might be saying that, while it may all be true, we still don’t have to speak Irish. And you’d be right, we don’t have to speak Irish.

But then again, there are lots of things in life we do because we want to do them, and not because we have to.

So people in Ireland don’t follow the Irish rugby team because they have to, or because they’re the most successful or entertaining rugby team in the world, they follow them because they’re the Irish rugby team, and for no other reason. The Irish language is the same.

Colm Ó Broin is an Irish speaker from Clondalkin, Dublin and a member of Conradh na Gaeilge. He will be giving a series of talks around the country on myths about the Irish language.

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