Languages not wasted on the young
Published 11/03/2014 | 05:30
THE younger lad came on the blower today. 'Leroy,' I thought I heard him say. 'Is that Leroy?' I replied, thinking he was in the middle of one of his role-playing games. 'Leroy,' he said again. 'Good man, Leroy, what are you up to?' I asked.
Then the good woman took the phone from him. 'He's not saying Leroy, he's saying Nee Hao,' she explained, ' he has been learning Chinese in the crèche. I was very impressed. When I got home he met me at the door with a bow, and another Chinese greeting. By the sink stood a Chinese flag, and it struck me that this is a step forward for Irish education.
For the past number of years, as we Westerners have been holding each other upright while being battered by the relentless gales of a financial typhoon, the Chinese have been bucking the trend, maintaining a strong rate of economic growth.
Until recently, that is, and now the Chinese steam train seems to be slowing down. And now it's the Easterners' turn to get worried.
Different generations of Irish adults will testify to being force-fed foreign languages during their formative years. The generation that preceded my own learned Latin, while I was a member of the 'compulsory French' brigade.
What good has either language done in later life? I cannot speak on behalf of the students of Latin but learning French comes in handy on the rare occasions we holiday in France, and need to find the washing chamber, the library, or want to know if the mademoiselle would fancy a dance. After that I pretty much rely on sign language and repeating the English word over and over, with a contintental twang.
We took the young lad, younger lad and the niece and nephew to the final of the Pan Celtic Song Contest in County Carlow at the weekend, and it opened our eyes to the rebirth the Irish language is currently undergoing. There were a number of young artists taking part and their songs, composed in their native tongue, were very impressive.
The winning act was a group of Sixth Class pupils from Scoil Chriost Ri in County Clare, with a funky number called Sean Ban Abu. They played fiddles, banjos, guitars, drums and their lead singer was akin to a young, Irish, Michael Jackson. They lifted the roof off the venue. As we left, the niece turned to us and said, 'I'm going to ask our teacher if we can enter next year.' Mission accomplished. Learning Irish doesn't have to be a miserable experience, nor a chore.
In Wales, I met countless adults who lamented not learning their native language in school, and who took night classes once they came of age to catch up with those who were fluent in Welsh.
As we sat down to watch The Voice of Ireland on Sunday night, the younger lad started belting out the chorus of Sean Ban Abu; it had stuck in his head from the night before. English, Chinese and now a touch of Irish - a glimpse of an evolving Ireland. I only worry that it's time for me to start going back to the books, if I don't want to be left behind.