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The Irish For: Why do we remember things from TV and what does that mean for learning languages?

‘Thousands of Irish people know their rights if they’re arrested in America but not if they’re arrested in Ireland… and nobody would know what mitosis was if it wasn’t for Sabrina,’ writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

I HAD AN epiphany of sorts recently.

Some colleagues were discussing the pop songs that were now thirty years old when one fellow incorrectly attributed a Transvision Vamp song to Roxette.

As I was about to swoop in and correct him, a thought popped into my head: why do you know this useless fact, Darach?

Why do you remember this and not the chemical formula for alcohol? How did this information lodge itself in the brain that could not retain lists of irregular verbs?

Tellingly, I would have been studying the Modh Coinníollach in 1989 or 1990, when these two bands were at the height of their powers.

I knew what diplomatic immunity was from seeing Lethal Weapon II and about the internment of Japanese families during World War II from Die Hard.

I asked Twitter if anyone else had had this experience and sure enough they had – no teacher had told them what minority reports or double jeopardy were.

Thousands of Irish people know their rights if they’re arrested in America but not if they’re arrested in Ireland… and nobody would know what mitosis was if it wasn’t for Sabrina.

And this doesn’t even cover the stuff we learned it prestigious shows like The West Wing, The Good Wife and ER.

Teaching children this way would be completely absurd – the information is random, out of context and unreliable. Just think about how many movies about Ireland get very basic things wrong, like what side of the island Dingle is on in Leap Year.

But that said learning eats teaching for breakfast and our minds are busily remembering and forgetting stuff whether it is useful and accurate or not.

The amount we forget from school but retain from entertainment puts the notorious “the way it’s taught” argument about Irish in context.

The Way It’s Taught (TWIT for short) is a deeply frustrating regular feature in debates about Irish.

On one level, TWIT cannot be dismissed out of hand – if you have no Irish after eleven years of lessons, a different teaching approach is unlikely to have yielded a worse outcome.

However, this is no more insightful than saying that an investment might drop in value or that you will probably die someday.

But TWIT implies more than it says: that Irish is an exception in an otherwise perfect system, but also that any suggested change – no matter how drastic or far-fetched –  can’t make things any worse.

And if you’re old enough to remember Roxette and Transvision Vamp, then the way Irish is taught has changed several times since you’ve been in school, but TWIT as an argument hasn’t changed at all.

Irish isn’t an exception, though, the truth is that we retain very little knowledge of the subjects that we didn’t enjoy.

I’m sure you recognise what words like luch, capall, cluiche, and feoil mean more quickly than you’ll recognise the formula for calculating the surface area of a triangle.

But maybe retention of Irish can be improved by looking at what makes the facts we learn from films and TV so sticky – we learned them while we were having fun.

I’ll leave you with two examples of Irish grammar rules that were retained by friends of mine because of the way it was taught to them.

One lad said that his teacher explained an tuiseal ginideach to him as being “the offside rule in Irish” – all about possession and the séimhiú is the ball.

This doesn’t apply in every instance but knowing the analogy was a good enough start for him to learn the exceptions.

And a woman I know said that she remembers the past tense of the irregular verb beir, which is rug, by thinking of a bearskin rug.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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