That perennial red herring, the manner in which the official national language of the nation-state of Ireland is taught in its education system, is raised yet again in the Irish Times newspaper:
“Why, with 13 or 14 years of instruction and learning in Irish, does research show standards continue to fall? A 2006 report by Dr John Harris from Trinity College found a sharp fall in the standard of Irish among sixth-class students between 1985 and 2002. It also found a quarter of Irish primary school teachers believed their own standard of Irish to be “weak”.
Last November, the chief inspector’s report said students’ learning was “less than satisfactory in almost a quarter of Irish lessons in primary schools and almost a third of Irish lessons in post-primary schools”. The report was also concerned about language competence of teachers in a “small but significant number of classrooms”.
At primary level a new integrated language curriculum is due for junior classes this September. It’s not before time. The curriculum in place since 1999 intended to encourage a communicative, task-based approach, but while the document itself is wonderfully child-centred and idealistic, it seems to ignore the fact that for most children, and indeed, teachers, Irish is a second language and needs to be learned rather than absorbed.
The new curriculum, which will be introduced to junior classes (up to second class) in September 2014, will give teachers far more support in terms of what to teach and how to teach it. It will include a step-by-step guide about how to achieve particular curricular objectives. The curriculum will be published online to enable teachers to click through to the material and supports. Making an English-language version of the document would certainly help teachers, but some people involved in teacher-training acknowledge that such a move would be met with hostility from Irish language groups.
Pádraig Ó Duibhir of St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, with his colleague Prof Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto, has conducted a review for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) of strategies proven to work for language learning in the lead up to this upcoming curriculum review.
“Part of the issue is the system of 30 or 40 minutes a day for Irish in primary school,” says Ó Duibhir. “That drip drip approach has not been successful for Welsh in Wales or French in Canada. Schools achieving good results here have children using Irish outside the Irish class. One school, for example has had great success with a Lá na Gaeilge where everyone makes an effort to speak Irish on one day each week. The children have a need to use it. In practising it, they experience success, which further motivates them.”
An approach to language learning that takes the language outside of the language class has been successful. In Cordoba in Spain teachers are encouraged to teach one subject apart from English, through English. “PE and art are easy ways into that sort of approach. Science could work too,” Ó Duibhir says.
“We need to ask ourselves, are we teaching Irish for cultural reasons, or for it to be used?” says Dr Muiris Ó Laoire, a lecturer and researcher on multi-lingualism in IT Tralee. “If we want it to be used, we need to rethink what we’re doing. How are we going to provide meaningful opportunities for use? It can be done but it is a challenge.””
What few are willing to acknowledge is that the historic devaluing of the Irish language through its status as simply another classroom subject has long been a policy of the state itself. Over 90% of all Irish schools and at all levels function through the medium of the English language. This is not just a reflection of society at large but a deliberate mechanism by which the Irish language is rendered alien, “foreign”, in the eyes of faculty and students alike. With schools in majority Irish-speaking regions under pressure to teach through English and Irish-medium schools or gaelscoileanna in majority English-speaking regions “blacklisted” through the hostility of the Department of Education even those parents and children who regard the language as their own are being prevented from using it. The ghettoization of the Irish language in English-medium schools has in fact been the most successful policy of the Irish state since the winning of independence in the 1920s. It has reduced those who speak the language to a despised and hated minority, an under-class of citizenry.
It allows, for instance, bigoted conspiracy theories like these below not just to exist but to flourish:
“JamesTScott: There you go, the unfair advantage. Do you think the gael speakers want anything to change? The less people speaking the language the better for them. Notice how quick the curriculum changed to make it easier to learn. Who do you think writes it.
Why do you think Irish was taught in a way that only a few could learn it? Think about it, we all remember Peig and compare that to your French book, what a difference. For one thing it suited the people that could speak it, notable the people living in the gaeltachs, or people coming from advantaged areas, private schools, afford to send their children to the gaeltach every year. 30 years ago this was a massive advantage/competitive edge.
In the west of ireland there are still big advantages for speaking Irish. It’s their private club and they have a lot to gain by keeping the numbers down. It’s not something that is talked about, but it is understood among the speakers.
gav22332: Have to agree with the other comments with regard to nepotism with Irish speakers. Its a small group of people who understand how the system works and only a small percentage of people are wealthy enough to make use of it. And that group will always get their own kids into the Gaeltach every year for private lessons. Teachers. Garda, public service all full of people whose parents were able to play the system. Unfair to every one else.”
Anyone who has experienced the hostility of Anglophone supremacists at first hand will find these allegations wearily familiar. Yet they are not just the opinions of an extremist minority amongst the general public but are held to be true by many in the news media too. As we have seen.
[With thanks to An Lorcánach for the original link]