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Opinion: 'You often hear that the Irish language is badly taught in our schools but that is not true'

Compared with other subjects Irish is not badly taught. More students got a B1 or higher in Irish than in French and German combined, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

I WAS IN Nashville last year when I met two women from Canada. As someone who is interested in the bilingual status of Canada, I asked them if they spoke French.

Instantly, I could tell the question had made them a bit uncomfortable. “No,” said one. “I mean, we have to learn it in school, but….”

Her friend interjected, “It is just taught really badly.”

“Where have I heard that before,” I thought to myself.

It is a truth universally acknowledged in Ireland that the Irish language is taught badly in our schools.

Believe it or not, this isn’t true.

Comparing subjects

The simplest way to test whether it is taught badly is to compare students’ achievement in Irish to other subjects.

An obvious subject to compare Irish to is Maths. We can easily compare the marks students achieve in both subjects in the Leaving Certificate. If Irish is really taught badly in comparison to Maths, we would expect to see this represented in the Leaving Certificate results.

In 2016, 5,024 Leaving Cert students received an A1, A2 or B1 in honours Irish, but only 2,750 people attained those marks in honours Maths. Based on this at least, it is hard to make the argument that Irish teachers are doing substandard work compared to their peers teaching mathematics.

How do the results for Leaving Cert Irish compare to those of foreign languages?
Well, they don’t bear out the idea that we are teaching international languages any better than Irish.

In 2016, more students got a B1 or higher in honours Irish (5,024) than honours French or German combined (4,396), despite the fact that 400 more students took either the French or German paper.

While students attending Irish-immersion secondary schools undoubtedly gives the scores for Irish a boost, based on these numbers, it is simply impossible to argue that there is some deficiency in how Irish is taught compared to other subjects.

Of course, when people say ‘Irish is taught badly’, they don’t think of it in comparison to other subjects. Instead, the proof offered is that ‘everyone learns Irish for 13 years and no one can speak it’.

This thinking implies that because students study Irish for so long, they should have a proficiency level similar to that of English. But this is hopelessly unrealistic.

Time spent

Take your average 15-year-old Irish student. They are in school for 167 days a year. For each day, let’s assume they have one 40-minute Irish class, and then get about 20 minutes homework.

In total, they are learning Irish for one hour a day, 167 days a year.

That sounds like a lot, but how much time is this student spending engaging with English?

If we assume the student sleeps seven hours each night, and that they spend most of their waking moments speaking or thinking in English, we can estimate that they are exposed to English for 6,038 hours a year.

Compared to that, 167 hours looks pretty small, and it is.

Based on these numbers, an Irish teenager spends 2.6% of their time engaging with Irish, and well over 90% of their time operating through English. How could we ever expect our education system to provide some kind of equivalent capability in Irish and English on that basis?

According to studies, by the time someone reaches 18, they will only have spent 13% of their waking hours in the classroom.

In other words, when it comes to learning, what is happening outside the classroom is at least as important as what is taking place within.

We remember things we use

The more something is reinforced when the student is outside of class, the more they will retain the knowledge or skills they learned in class. This can be easily demonstrated in relation to three skills taught to all Irish schoolchildren: literacy (in English), Maths, and Irish.

The vast majority of students who go through the Irish education system learn to read and write.
Next, we look at maths. Most people retain some math skills, like the ability to add and subtract, multiply and divide, and to calculate percentages, for their entire lives.

Others, like algebra, geometry and trigonometry, are quickly forgotten. Why? The former are skills we use all the time, but the latter are ones most of use never use again.

Then we come to Irish. In blunt terms, most students never use Irish outside the classroom, so it doesn’t stick with them.

Either our teachers are incredible at teaching literacy, patchy at teaching Maths, and terrible at teaching Irish (a trait shared by Canadian teachers of French, it seems), or we are ignoring how influential wider social factors are on student achievement in the classroom.

Get real

If it is true that Irish is not taught badly, then why are people so adamant that it is?

The answer is simple. The Irish language provokes complex emotions among us. Various surveys show that a majority of Irish people would like to speak Irish fluently, but can’t. People reflect on how long they have studied it in school, and think something must be wrong.

Their choice of a scapegoat is either themselves, for not being clever enough to learn Irish, or our teachers, for teaching it so poorly. No prizes for guessing who most people decide to pin the blame on.

But in reality, it is neither the fault of the teacher or the student.

The issue is that our expectation for what can be achieved within an Irish classroom given the position of Irish in wider society is completely impracticable.

Imagine if every day, every Irish school child was taken to a GAA field and asked to run one gentle lap of it.

They run this lap every day throughout their time at school. Then, once their education is complete, we turn around and say ‘how come these students can’t run a marathon? Sure they have been doing running training every day for 13 years!’

That is essentially equivalent to what we are doing with Irish.

If we want to see students absorb the language more effectively at school, we need to think of ways to promote the language outside the classroom as well.

Caoimhín De Barra’s new book Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution is being published this month by Currach Press and will be launched at An Siopa Leabhar at 6 Harcourt Street pm on Friday, March 15. That event includes a bilingual panel discussion on the question of reviving Irish.

Dr De Barra will also hold public lectures on the topic of Galeophobia at NUI Galway on March 11 at 6 pm and at Club na Múinteoirí, 36 Parnell Square West, in Dublin on March 15 at 6.30pm.

All three events are free to attend and open to the public.  

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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