Category Archives: Language and travel

The resuscitation of the Irish language: observations of a tourist

Back in France after my amazing UK trip, I’m in my teaching/translating routine for just a little while longer before the big move back to Australia. I loved every place we visited, but Ireland was definitely my favourite. The people were friendly, the landscapes were breathtaking, (if you haven’t been yet, you must see the Ring of Kerry), and the traditional music was timeless, probably not having changed much since my ancestors left a few hundred years ago.

On a walking tour in Galway, I got talking to the guide about the Irish language. Although there is Irish language television and radio, only about 5% of the population can actually speak it fluently. Before the guide gave us a demonstration, we had never actually heard anyone speak it! In his view, the teaching of Irish in schools is pretty token: kids only learn it in primary school and even then, the teachers teaching it don’t necessarily master it themselves. He then told me about this ad for beer that came out in the early 2000s, which apparently sums up all the Irish vocabulary that kids learn at school.

It got me thinking about some of the parallels the Irish language has with the Maori language in New Zealand. We also have to learn Maori at primary school in New Zealand, but like the Irish language, it seemed to be quite symbolic when I was at school. We had a poster up in the classroom and sang some songs, as well as learning colours, numbers and basic instructions (stand up, sit down etc). It never went beyond that. Like many other learners of Maori I was not particularly motivated by the teaching, which didn’t really make the language live, and it became a drag quite quickly. As opposed to other languages like French, Arabic or Mandarin, there is no inherent motivation that comes from needing the language later in life. Maybe if kids could be taught more of the heritage that comes along with the language they might find it easier to see the point?

I recently finished reading a great book on raising bilingual children which emphasised the importance of ‘exposure time’ when learning a second language. Basically, if you don’t have the opportunity to interact in a language on a daily basis, or at least regularly, it becomes much more difficult to master that language. It seems like common sense really, but it comes as no surprise that one-hour-a-week language programs don’t have amazing results. Perhaps it could be a good idea to make schools completely bilingual, as is becoming more common with English/French here and apparently Mandarin/English in Australia.

So, I wish the Irish all my luck with in their efforts to keep their language alive, and hope that the challenges of teaching a heritage language won’t stop them from trying harder.

Adh mor ort!