John Walshe Education Editor MANY young people don't know a single word of Irish even though they have been forced to learn it throughout their school years, it was claimed last night.
Languages expert Dr Kevin Williams said the official policy of ensuring that people were able to use the language was a "manifest failure".
At present pupils are obliged to take Irish to Leaving Certificate level. Exemptions are granted in some cases, such as those whose primary education up to the age of 11 was received outside Ireland.
But in the vast majority of cases students are taught Irish right through their primary and secondary schooling.
At a discussion in Trinity College Dublin, Dr Williams argued that compulsory Irish was a failure and said he was no longer surprised at the lack of knowledge of the language among many people.
"Once I addressed a senior pupil by the Irish version of his name and he informed me that he had no idea of what I was talking about.
"Nor was I surprised in 1994 to learn of Irish fans in the USA assuming that the broadcast in Irish of the match between Ireland and Norway was in Norwegian. This incident shows that people can be committed to the country and not know any of the language."
He said there were educational benefits from learning the second language, but this did not mean that the language should be compulsory through all the years of schooling.
"But the failure of state policy regarding Irish does not entail that more time should be devoted to learning foreign languages.
"Learning any language is a difficult undertaking, and there is no quick-fix method of doing this successfully. Learning is even more difficult when conducted in a classroom context alone and where the learning is not reinforced in the life of the community.
"This is one reason why Irish speakers have no problem learning English - the language is all around them," said Dr Williams, a lecturer at Mater Dei Institute of Education and author of 'Why Teach Foreign Languages in Schools?', which was published in the UK.
He said that English was now the major world language of scholarship, commerce and the media. The internet had made English "the Latin of the modern world". "None of this is to deny the necessity for native English speakers to know the language of any country to which they wish to sell goods and services. Yet it does not justify making foreign language learning compulsory for everyone."