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VOICES

Aaron McKenna Drop Irish or go full native – it's time to decide

The Irish language is either a waste of scarce public money, or it is a national treasure that we must make it our mission to revive into daily use. Either way, it’s time to get off the fence.

THE IRISH LANGUAGE Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin made a sacrifice that few enough in public service have been known to be brave enough to stomach: he announced that he will resign from his post, largely in protest at the lack of official support for the Irish language that he is tasked to protect.

In his 2012 report the Language Commissioner said that “for every one step forward” in the promotion of the Irish language in the public sector, “there appeared to have been two steps backwards.”

As Ó Cuirreáin quite rightly points out, there can be great difficulties in accessing Irish through the public sector. This is something that was re-mandated as obligatory in 2003 legislation that created the post of An Coimisinéir Teanga. In one instance, a man stopped by Gardaí got into bother because the Garda could not speak to him in Irish. In his report the Commissioner commented:

I was struck during the investigation by the fact that Gardaí who had received their education within this country’s schools system and had finished their training in Templemore some short years previously had insufficient command of Irish to ask a driver when stopped at the roadside ‘Cad is ainm duit?

This is perhaps the most basic and perplexing question at the heart of the perennial discussion of the place of the Irish language in this country: the abiding national language is beaten into us every single day of our schooling from the age of around four until we graduate secondary school around 18, yet only a minority of the population are in any way fluent.

Even fewer people actually decide to use the language on a daily or even semi-regular basis.

We pour tens of millions into Irish

Yet, we pour tens of millions into translating documents and providing official services through Irish, with €12 million being spent recently to train people to translate EU legislation – that the Dail hardly has time to read in English – into Irish from 2016.

An FOI request by The Sun newspaper showed a bill for €1.6 million 2012 to translate “documents of major public importance” into Irish, as is mandated in law. NAMA, the NTMA and the National Pension Reserve Fund spent €23,462 to translate their annual reports into Irish. Costs for other departments and agencies range from translating local area plans to taxi customer information cards.

The truth seems to be that we have a half-hearted approach to the Irish language. On the one hand, we are very attached and rightly sentimental about our language and our identity. On the other hand, we don’t actually use it all that much. We like it, we have fond ideas about it, but we don’t have a use for it.

The spending on the language makes the right political noises, but it’s only a small minority who are really affected daily by the language, outside of schoolchildren.

This is an unacceptable fudge. The Irish language is either a waste of scarce public money, or it is a national treasure that we must make it our mission to revive into daily use.

If we want Irish, we need to commit fully to it

If as a nation we truly believe that Irish ought to be at the centre of our national identity, which we seem to do between the ages of 4 and 18 when it’s a daily part of life, then we need to commit ourselves fully to it.

I speak as someone who was, by the end of education, tucked safely away into one of those Irish classes where we were left to play 20 questions in English. I’m hopeless, and I’ll admit that I didn’t see much point to learning a language without perceived practical use beyond earning a few points in an exam.

I would suggest that we hold a national plebiscite in order to ask ourselves if we want to either totally defund Irish and release students to choose it as an option or to learn something more practical; or if we would like to begin to gradually conduct all official business in Irish.

A black-and-white choice, I think, is the only way to truly kick the Irish language back into the centre of Irish life; or to force people to decide if this is simply a frivolity they could live without.

Immersion is the only real way to learn a language

After 14 years of daily Irish tuition, we do not come out fluent speakers. This, I believe, comes down to commitment. We are not truly committed to the language. Kids can sense that, and so aren’t pushed to learn or retain the language. They are not immersed in it. As anyone learning any language will tell you, the absolute best way to get along is to go and try order a coffee in a foreign city. Live it, learn it, love it.

If we want this language to be at the centre of our lives, put it there. If not, shut down this cottage industry that creams so much from having official documents, reports, even road signs translated. It eats up print space, if nothing else, to have to essentially produce twice the amount of paper. Very environmentally unfriendly.

Make a switch, like moving from driving on the left side to the right side of the road. Perhaps do it over time, gradually making services available mostly through Irish. For example, if you want to talk to Revenue you can get an English speaking line if you like, but we have ten Irish speaking agents for every one English. Eventually you might get rid of English altogether from official dealings with the citizens of Ireland.

The local language is the predominant in many successful countries

Yes, I’m aware that there are major practical barriers. If we want to stay the best country in the world in which to do business, as Forbes magazine recently rated us, we need to be accessible to foreigners through English. And we probably can’t expect our substantial immigrant population to adapt overnight.

Yet, there are plenty of successful models of countries that interact globally, are easily accessible to English speakers, but where the local language is the predominant one used among locals. The Dutch and Germans are fantastic at this, with the former being a major competitor of ours in the Foreign Direct Investment stakes.

I have always been a woeful Irish speaker since the early days of school. It would be of great inconvenience to me personally if we made a major switch into becoming an Irish-speaking country. But you know, I’d rather have to learn – and I’d fancy my chances of managing it if it was the difference between being able to function effectively in society or not – than see this fudge continue.

We ought to put our mouths where our money is on Irish. (I’ll get my coat…)

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: More than €12 million spent training Irish language graduates to translate EU legislation

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