The Irish language has a serious image problem. In the minds of young people many, it is still stuck in the 19th century (or earlier) in a time without electricity or cars. The ghost of Peig Sayers haunts the language with many imaging the language only spoken on a desolate, wind-swept, rain-soaked West coast by an old woman in a shawl beside a turf fire over a plate of potatoes. Conversations are limited to potatoes, tuberculosis, the evils of the British and decades of the rosary. During school, we’d sit at the back of class and wonder why we were wasting time on Irish. We doubted whether it was even possible to have a conversation about modern life in Irish, did this peasant language even have words for modern technology?
While I’m not going to pretend that everyone had such a negative view of the language as my pass class, there is no doubt that Irish suffers from negative stereotypes. Too many people view as only a language for Famine victims and the IRA (the principal of my local Gaelscoil was the son of a former Chief of Staff of the IRA). Young and urban people don’t see the language as being for them, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy as it makes the user base older and more rural. Even since independence, despite massive government support, the language has steadily declined decade by decade. Only 2% of the country use it on a daily basis, mainly in remote areas.
The only way to reverse this trend is to embrace modern technology and get young people to use the language. Languages are like muscles, they must be constantly used or else they will fade away. The language must be presented in a modern way to show that it has a future in the 21st century and beyond. People need to be shown that Irish isn’t just for old women to mourn their sons drowned at sea, it can be used in a modern day-to-day setting. TG4 is very good but it is limited by the large production costs in television and therefore has a limited quantity of programs. Radio is losing popularity as a medium and anytime I tune into Radió na Gaeltachta, all I hear is trad music or someone quietly mumbling (they desperately need better presenters). Most young people spend a huge part of their time online, so if you want to reach them, that’s how it has to be done.
Colaiste Lurgan has done fantastic work in this regard. They have translated a huge number of chart songs into Irish and made fantastic covers of them. This is exactly the kind of promotion the language needs, to show that it is just as capable as any other language. Subtly drawing people to listening to catchy music and thereby stimulating interest in the language is a far better approach than having Gaeilgeoirs lecturing us on how ashamed our ancestors would be and how you’re not really Irish unless you speak Irish. The language needs to be presented as something fun and enjoyable to use, which is difficult for anyone who’s been through the Leaving Cert to grasp.
Social media offers huge opportunities for the language that have not been fully embraced. There are few bloggers and no vloggers in Irish, no one simply showing their life (as exciting or ordinary as it might be) in a video. Most people have only ever seen Irish used in the classroom or a historical documentary, so it is crucial to show people using it in other situations. It might seem unnecessary, but it is crucial to show people freely using the language without the threat of an exam (or promise of a grant). If none of your neighbours use Irish, then it can be difficult to keep it up and there might seem to be no point in it. That’s where the internet can be used to connect people with users and material in the language. A language is essentially a tool, so to be useful Irish must open a door to material that people find interesting.
Modern technology can overcome the many of traditional difficulties of language learning. It can often be hard to find other people to speak with and most towns don’t have local clubs. The few courses that are out there are expensive and with inflexible dates. A new app has been launched that could help with this. Amikumu is a free mobile app for finding other people who are learning the same language as you. It scans the local area and shows you the nearest people you are also learning Irish. You can then message them and even arrange to meet up if you want to meet in person. The app was only launched three months ago, initially for speakers of Esperanto, but this week has been opened to all languages (all 7,500 of them). Because it is so new, there are only a handful of Irish speakers on the app, but there is enormous potential.
It effectively addresses the main problems that clubs traditionally have. Clubs are hard to find, meet infrequently, often at times that may not suit you. Many people are reluctant to enter a group of strangers and worry that their level is not good enough. In contrast, Amikumu is a free app that requires no commitment and you can use on your terms. You can use it when and where you want, whenever it suits you, from the comforts of your home instead of having to travel to a community centre. It is far less daunting to type a short message than be thrown in the deep end into a conversation with a complete stranger. I’ve found it useful for finding speakers of Esperanto, another small language in a similar situation.
The internet makes learning languages much easier too. People can avoid paying for classes or textbooks and instead freely access quality material. A major success story is the free Irish course on Duolingo. The website is enormous with over 150 million users and probably the largest language learning website in the world. What makes it different from other sites is that it makes learning into a game to keep people entertained and make it less of a drudge. It teaches languages in a modern, colourful and efficient manner. The site isn’t perfect as some have complained about the poor pronunciation used and that it is too much like a game as people focus only on gaining points instead of actually learning. However, the site is still massively helpful and the course has almost 3.5 million users after less than 3 years.
The 21st century will bring serious challenges for the Irish language, but also many opportunities. There is no point wallowing in complacency or deluding ourselves that everything is fine. Irish has been declining for decades and only drastic action will change this. But I firmly believe that embracing modern technology like Amikumu, Duolingo, Youtube and others can boost the language and make it relevant for a whole new audience.