Every discussion of the Irish language follows the same weary, repetitive track. No matter how the conversation begins, sooner or later, the education system gets blamed. That is why we don’t speak Irish – because it wasn’t taught right to us. The teachers failed to show the beauty of Gaeilge and cultivate a love of the language in their students. If only we could find the right way of teaching Irish, then we’d all be fluent.
But I’ve always been sceptical of this excuse. As a student, I did poorly at Irish, but this was because I had no genuine interest in the language. It was just another subject and I cared as much about it as I did about geography or maths. I had good and bad teachers but none that convinced me to see Irish as anything other than something I needed to know for the exam. No teacher inspired a love for it, but then again, I felt no love or passion for any subject, except for history (and that was due to my own interest rather than any teacher).
The number one complaint I hear about the education system is that it doesn’t inspire passion in students about Irish and make them care about the language. This is true, but the same can be said about every subject. For most students, they are lucky if there are one or two subjects they genuinely engage with and there are many students who never care about a single subject they have to study. The teaching of Irish may fail the nationalist dream of raising a new generation with a deep connection to their heritage, respect for Gaelic culture and passion for the language, but no subject reaches this high standard of making a generation of students passionate about the topic.
If you look at how we teach foreign languages, there’s not much of a difference. French was taught to me in much the same way as Irish was, in fact for several years I had the same teacher for both subjects. I did much better in French mainly due to greater personal interest and lower standard. This is an important point, despite the fact that many students complain about having better French after only four years than fourteen years of Irish, the standard is much higher for Irish. French has only one exam paper, with a heavy focus on comprehension and only a short letter than needs to be written. Irish on the other hand has two exam papers, requiring multiple essays, discussions on poetry, a novel and the history of the language.
A common complaint is that “Irish is taught as if it’s our native language” which is very odd if you think about it. What people mean is that it’s taught to a high level with students presumed to be following, instead of stopping to explain the meaning of each word. This process can understandably more too fast for some students, but how else are people supposed to reach fluency? The basics would have been covered in primary school (that’s when the teacher explains each word) so by secondary school, the student should be ready to move onto more advanced material. So, yes Irish is taught at a more advanced level than French or other foreign languages, but that’s because students have been studying it longer. It would be a sign of complete failure if students were still being taught the basics.
Part of the problem with the discussion is that the complaints often contradict each other. Some say there is too much emphasis on poetry and other such nonsense which students don’t need, instead the focus should be just on the core elements like grammar. But others say the opposite, that grammar puts students to sleep, they should instead focus on the cultural side of the language like poetry. Others say the focus shouldn’t be on either, just on speaking the language, but there already is an oral exam is worth 40% of the Leaving Cert grade in Irish, so how much more of a focus can be added? Some complain that students need to be immersed in the language, others that there is too much immersion and it’s drowning them. It’s hard to reach a goal if there is such confusion as to what the goal should be. Irish has been a core education subject for almost a century, if there is a more effective way of teaching it, why has no one tried it?
A strong counter to the claim that the education system is the cause of the poor level of Irish, is the fact students have the highest levels of Irish in the country (outside the Gaeltacht). The average person’s knowledge of Irish peaks at the leaving cert, it then declines over years because they don’t use it anymore. Knowledge of a language is like any skill, without use and practice it will decline. The main problem isn’t that the education system fails to teach Irish to a high enough level, it’s that we rarely use Irish outside of the education system. The reason students in Europe succeed in becoming fluent in English is because they want to become fluent and are willing to put the time and effort into doing so.
Now, I’m not a teacher, but when I was living in Slovakia I helped out with English classes at the local school because I was practically the only native English speaker in the town. It was interesting to compare the how English was taught with how we teach Irish. The most interesting part was how little of a difference there was. Students would read texts, listen to dialogues and try to have a conversation. The teachers didn’t have particularly high levels of English or much resources. The level wasn’t too different from leaving cert students at Irish, there were a few who could barely string a sentence together, but most could hold a conversation and a handful spoke to a very high level. The experience of teaching it wasn’t much different from teaching any language, students weren’t inspired to love the language, it was just another subject to them.
Yet some of these students would eventually go on to get jobs using English, move to English speaking countries and become fluent in the language. So why do they progress much further than students of Irish? It’s not due to any superior teaching method or a better education system. The main difference is that the students want to learn English. They consider it a useful skill that will help them get jobs, watch movies, read books, understand music lyrics etc. Irish students on the other hand consider Irish to be a useless subject, no more worthwhile than learning Latin. This links into a second difference, namely they actually use the language outside the classroom. They could access media in the English language, meet tourists who only spoke English (like me), visit English speaking countries. Other than a summer holiday to the Gaeltacht (where you can still use English) where can students use Irish? I can’t remember a single time I used Irish outside of school (even trying to use it as a secret language abroad didn’t work). Even my sister who went to a Gaelscoil until Leaving Cert never spoke Irish outside the classroom, even with her friends from school who were fluent.
There is only one way to change the education system that I can see that could boost knowledge of Irish: convert all schools to gaelscoileanna. But even purely Irish-only education would not make Irish a dominant language in Ireland. Let’s put aside the enormous costs involved in training all teachers to be fluent in Irish and the tricky issue of children born outside of Ireland. Even though this would boost grades students get in Irish, it wouldn’t change the underlying fact that almost everything in Ireland outside the education system is conducted in English. Students aren’t idiots, they know this, so they would resist and use English whenever a teacher wasn’t present and as soon as they leave the school grounds they would revert to their native language. Even gaelscoil students who are fluent in Irish mostly prefer to use English.
This is the fundamental reason why Irish people don’t speak Irish: it’s because we don’t want to. Neither students nor adults will learn Irish unless they consider it a productive use of their time and can use the language. I understand why people blame the education system, as doing so absolves us of guilt and embarrassment. It also offers us the hope that centuries of linguistic decline could be reversed if we just changed how we teach the language. But unfortunately, no matter how the language is taught, students won’t engage with the subject unless they see some benefit in doing so. If they only do so because they have an exam on it, then they will only learn what they need for the exam and forget everything afterwards.