Those of us in University of Galway are acutely aware of the fact that being able to speak Irish automatically makes someone a bit more attractive. Despite this, most of us can’t speak the language.
If you ask people why this is, the common answer is ‘it’s because of how it’s taught’. While this may be partially true, it’s better to understand the failings of Irish language pedagogy in terms of how it’s examined.
The vast majority of Irish teachers in schools have a genuine love of the language, and really want to pass it on to the next generation. However, this is difficult to do within the structural confines of the Irish language school subject. This is purely resultant from the attitudes towards the language from those in decision making roles.
From my perspective it really looks like those in power view Irish as something backwards that represents the past not the future. In this respect, they are completely wrong. The future of Irish language won’t be it being only spoken by people in the middle of nowhere in Conamara, who eat turf breakfast, wear woollen jumpers, and are terrified of electricity, as those in power seem to think is the case. The future of the Irish language is young and vibrant.
However, in order to truly capture that future, and allow it to flourish, we’re going to need to see a bit more ambition from a generation of leaders that still feels traumatised and aggrieved by Peig. But that’s where the issue lies. Decade after decade, those who should have been guiding the Irish language into a place of prominence in our modern Ireland instead viewed it as nothing more than a school subject, that they didn’t really like anyway.
This attitude, in turn, stifles the progress that could be made in the classroom. By solely treating the language as a school subject, it becomes just that for so many people. The result being that people’s only goal for their learning of the language isn’t to be able to speak it, but rather to be able to pass an exam.
Teachers who want to be able to pass on the language to their students, are left with no option but to focus on the nuances of some poem, instead of being able to meaningfully equip students with the skills to navigate the language.
If you stop and think about it, the idea that the oral exam for our nation’s first language includes reading a poem off a sheet is completely ridiculous. Yet, it’s exactly what happens. It is completely ridiculous that we set the bar so low for something so intrinsic to our national identity and culture.
If we changed the way the subject is examined, we can begin to make strides towards changing how the language is imagined. By moving away from rewarding rote learning, and the banking concept of education as criticised by Paulo Feire, we can structure the subject into something that truly rewards an understanding and appreciation of the language.
But the first step to having the subject reflect an appreciation of the language, is by having people in power appreciate the language. Unfortunately, as it stands, we are still far from realising this.
The changes we need to see to promote the Irish language simply won’t come from politicians who see the language as nothing more than a hobby language or a dying language. Of course, this isn’t the reality of it. Irish continues to be a language that people use every day as their primary language. People watch TV in Irish, people sing in the shower in Irish, people stub their toe in Irish, people live their lives in Irish. But Government after Government fails to recognise this.
We spend eight years in primary school, and another five or six in secondary school learning Irish, but yet few of us come out of school being able to speak it. We recognise it as the nation’s first language in article eight of our constitution, but yet it gets little meaningful acknowledgement in the halls of power. I’m not the first to point out that something needs to change, and I know I won’t be the last either. But I hope to God the last comes soon, because change is long overdue.