Changing How We Teach Irish In Our Schools

I have some sympathy with those who argue that the teaching of Irish in our primary and secondary schools should be on the basis of continuous assessment rather than through formal or certified examinations, unless chosen by a child or a parent at a later date. This would require pupil-tailored courses alongside class-orientated ones, detailed programmes for individualised support, guidance and tutoring, educators with a very high degree of fluency, external supervision and reporting of linguistic results or rates for all places of learning (public or private), and semi-immersive schooling, where the school environment itself would be geared towards encouraging active bilingualism.

Of course, such ideas are hardly new and have been submitted innumerable times by experts in the field to governments of all hues and backgrounds. Unfortunately the years of institutionalised malaise which has characterised the attitude of the State towards the island’s indigenous language has resulted in most of these suggestions being ignored or put on the fiscal long-finger. Irish was ghettoised in the education system in the 1920s, confined to the country’s schools and colleges, with the expectation that the vernacular would remain trapped there. A fossilised expression of nationality and citizenship, of native identity and independence, deliberately dipped in amber – both to kill and to preserve.

Below is a related guest post on the subject of Irish language education by the aspiring author and long-time reader, Sionnach Frost (no relation!).


Revolutionising Our Dying Language

Gaeilge. A word that I’m sure invokes terror in the hearts of plenty of Irish people nationwide. But the people are not to blame for the contempt they hold for their native tongue. We are the victims of an education system which has weaponised the national language through pointless poetry, the memorising of essay titles and through the constant pressures and stresses of state examinations.

When I was in school, I had a burning hatred for the language. I remember seeking refuge in the school bathrooms on my phone, waiting for the Irish class to pass. But here I am writing an article in an attempt to raise awareness about preserving our national language. So where did my love for Gaeilge suddenly sprout from? In the Gaelteacht, where Irish is not taught; Irish is experienced.

In the Gaelteacht, students are encouraged to chat to their friends in Irish instead of talking to an examiner in a stuffy classroom in June. Students learn through games and music instead of copying an endless barrage of questions and answers from a textbook. Students are also taught about Irish culture and about the people who sacrificed their lives for our language, instead of being taught the grammatical intricacies of the language. When compared with the Gaelteacht’s system of education, it is easy to see the shortcomings in how our language is taught.

With every passing year, our national and first official language heads closer to extinction. Yet no changes are being made to preserve and promote the language. The Irish syllabus needs to be totally restructured. Irish should be removed as an exam subject, allowing students to have a more positive relationship with the language. Irish needs to be made into a feature of our schools that students enjoy walking into everyday. Classes should be made more attractive by encouraging students to experience and discuss Irish language music and television shows, or pursue activities with their peers through Irish, like cookery or sports, art or computing. ”Make Irish enjoyable!” It’s an obvious solution to a dire problem but this country’s education system refuses to take it on board.

Independent Ireland is the only European country, outside of the historical nations of Wales and Scotland in the United Kingdom, where English is spoken more as a native language than its original and extant one. I think that fact alone speaks volumes about the situation but I will leave you with a quote from Michael Collins. ”Until we have Irish again on our tongues and in our minds, we are not free.”.

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16 comments

  1. As an outsider TBH I’m a bit shocked reading this. It sounds as though either the Irish qualification is entirely tokenistic, or else your teaching methods haven’t progressed since the 1950s. Don’t any of your education people ever go across to Wales for example, after all they consider themselves very much the experts in this area?

    Possibly of interest is this recent blog-post from Scotland :

    https://guthan.wordpress.com/2018/05/08/uist-guide-for-gaelic-learners/

    1. Odd that I should have mentioned Wales above, and the next thing I see is an item about a recent schools’ inspectors report, here :

      https://golwg360.cymru/newyddion/cymru/519337-sgiliau-cymraeg-mewn-ysgolion-estyn

      Suppose I’d better translate 🙂

      ———————–
      —–
      Welsh language skills “good” in schools, according to Estyn (Schools inspectorate)
      —–

      Pupils’ Welsh language skills in Welsh medium and bilingual primary and secondary schools are “good” according to a new report.

      The aim of the report by the review body, Estyn, is to support the development of a new curriculum for Wales, along with assisting the work of the Welsh Government to increase the number of Welsh speakers by 2050.

      According to the document, standards of Welsh in primary and secondary schools throughout Wales showed that pupils were able to speak, read and write well through the medium of Welsh, with many of them using their skills in other subjects.

      In Gwynedd (N.W. Wales), the inspectors found that the county’s five language centres provided pupils from non-Welsh-speaking families with a firm foundation for bilingual learning.

      Similarly, they saw pupils who had started at Ysgol Glan Clwyd moving from English-medium education to learning almost every subject through the medium of Welsh by years 7 & 8.

      —–
      Main recommendations
      —–

      But amongst the report’s recommendations is the need for schools to concentrate on developing their pupils’ oral abilities, which will lead on to the development of other skills such as writing.

      The report also includes questions for schools about how they develop opportunities to allow pupils to develop their Welsh skills beyond the Welsh-language classes themselves.

      There were further questions dealing with the need to create a school ethos to promote Welsh and the culture of Wales.

      —–
      Creating “a bilingual nation”
      —–

      According to Chief Inspector, Meilyr Rowlands, giving pupils good Welsh skills supports the ambition of creating a “bilingual nation”.

      “The majority of heads in our Welsh-medium and bilingual schools have a clear vision of every pupil making the best possible progress in developing their Welsh-language abilities and nurturing a strong feeling of Welsh identity.”

      “We have seen examples where immersion courses have produced excellent results in promoting speaking and listening abilities, and raising standards.”

      “The studies of good practice in this report demonstrate strategies which other schools and authorities can copy.”

      ———————–

  2. Hebrew was always used in worship and study of sacred texts so it never died and cannot be compared to the state of Irish

  3. In the school in Dublin where my wife works 95% are children of newly arrived immigrants who are trying to learn English . Polish is the second most widely spoken language in Ireland according to the CSO.

    1. Technically not so, though it has been repeatedly claimed as a statistical fact by the press. Unfortunately, the claim is a rather corrosive feature of lazy or partisan journalism hyped up to undermine Irish language rights by the usual suspects. The number of daily/weekly Irish-speakers, the equivalent to Polish home language speakers, is actually greater. I can dig out the stats for you though they are online.

      1. it’s interesting, in my daughter’s class many of those from non-Irish backgrounds are actually better at Irish than those from originally Irish backgrounds, not having the aversion they seem to be able to thrive in a bi -or actually trilingual context – another slight tangent is the number with Irish names. I really like that.

  4. I wouldn’t agree with divorcing Irish from the exam system at all. Though the course is bad and the teaching unacceptably poor in many cases, the fear of exam failure is what actually drives generations of Irish kids to their first contact with the language and indeed the Gaeltacht. No more than being forced to appreciate English language poetry for the first time when studying for English exams, having a cudgel to beat down the first defences of apathy and competing interests is very useful. The carrot of culture can then be offered later!
    Who’s going to read a book in Irish for fun when they have a maths exam on Monday. Tá Dia láidir is tá máthair mhaith aige!

    1. But the “exam” aspect would be through continuous, managed assessment. Students would be expected to be at a certain level at each grade and those failing in tuition/classroom activities would be given extra attention, with specialist modules to bring them up to the expected level for their age and ability.

      Certifications would be given for those who excel, while examinations with certs would be reserved for those who opted for them.

      The policy would be for all students to reach the final year of schooling with a preset level of oral and written fluency.

      It would remove the “passing the exam” criteria and replace it with a need for assessed fluency. Students would have, where necessary, tailored tutoring to ensure proficiency in the language and from a very early age.

      This of course would be more costly and resource-demanding than the present system but it would be structured in such a way that results would be required of it. Schools would have to produce a an expected percentage of fluent students, 80%+ , by the end of each term or explain why.

  5. I would agree with this post. Irish language teaching should merely focus on the speaking aspect of the language and let those of whom want to develop the subject further at a later time. Just like the English language taught at a young age, whereby reading and speaking it are very important in getting kids to ‘feel’ what the lauguage is all about.

    1. Just on that, I went to the Gaeltacht for three years in my teens. I never regretted it and the fact that they were incredibly strict about speaking Irish (one full sentence in English was enough to see you sent home – and they did send people home, albeit after a few warnings) was a real positive. Highly recommend that immersive thing. Still no good at reading it, at least not for pleasure but being able to speak it is a real bonus.

  6. What about the many thousands who can speak Irish to a good standard at 4/5/6 years old though? You’d like it to be approached like learning French or Spanish but you’re leaving out the fact that Irish needs a community educated in its roots to carry on the language. Like every developed language it needs to be stretched so it can function as the medium of expression for all of it’s speakers. A language geared for enthusiasts is a monstrosity.

    1. Yes, but continuous assessment and tailored tutoring requires learning streams too. Students would be required to achieve oral and written fluency at set stages in their education and the schools would be required by law and regulation to achieve those objectives. Of course, some won’t succeed, so percentages will have to come into play here but if one takes a logical and methodical Lean Six Sigma approach to all this the problems are not insurmountable.

      The schools themselves would be bilingual in terms of their physical environment.

      There should also, of course, be a push for entirely Irish medium schools and Irish medium streams within otherwise majority English-medium schools (though the latter concept is of lesser utility than wholly Irish schools).

  7. When as a child my family emigrated I breathed a huge sigh of relief that I’d never, ever, ever be forced to learn Irish again. It was a brutal experience for me which still sends shivers down the spine. When we arrived in our new host country I went to school, …and was forced to learn both Latin and French with equal brutality and ineffectiveness.

    Now I’m learning my own language again. Mostly on Duolingo, where there are (according to Duolingo) more people learning Gaeilge (1.4 million) than there are native Irish speakers. The reason I’m re-learning my language on a game based app is partly because it’s kind of fun, but mostly because it’s the only reasonably comprehensive system that’s free. It’s a disgrace that the Irish State doesn’t have a modern language learning app that’s free to use, (if I’ve just not been able to find such a beast I’ll happily stand corrected). Imo, Gaeilge is viewed by the Irish State either as an annoyance, a political tool, a kudos accumulator for some politicians, or as a potential cash cow – a means to milk the Irish diaspora.

    No-one else in my family who remained in Ireland can speak, or wants to speak, Gaeilge. In fact they’re very hostile to the notion. My wife is re-learning, but she’s like me, lived elsewhere for most of her life.

    So why bother? Why not just make do with English? It’s the most widely spoken language humanity has at its disposal, regardless of however you came by it. That’s a useful tool when not coming out of the mouths of Imperialists. So why don’t I just speak English and be done? …because having lived most of my life in other countries I see the vital need for a culture to speak and think in it’s own particular way, just to survive as a culture. It’s not Gaeilge that’s at risk of going extinct, it’s the Irish. Soon you won’t really be able to slip a Rizzla paper between the USA, Ireland, England, Scotland, Australia etc. Sure, they’ll all have their own flags and scream blue murder about how different they all are, …but in truth they’ll all just be flavours of American. But the French, Spanish, German etc speaking cultures will be distinct, individual cultures, mostly because of language imo.

    Is that not worth a few euro’s and a bit of effort now before it’s too late?

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