Sunday 15 July 2018

In my opinion ...

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Kevin Williams

The recent report of the Chief Inspector on teaching and learning in schools draws attention to a decline in standards in Irish at primary level. Less attention has been paid to its reference to an improvement in standards at second level, although here, too, performance in Irish was significantly inferior to that in English and maths.

One explanation for better performance at second level is because of the motivation that comes from having State examinations, whereas the Primary Certificate was abolished over 50 years ago. The instrumental reasons for learning Irish at post-primary level can seem very distant to primary school pupils. This means teachers have to rely much more on providing intrinsic motivation and this is not an easy task.

Are there other explanations for the decline?

The level of resistance on the part of some pupils and their parents to learning the language has probably increased. Both young people and their parents have become more assertive about what they want from education. The constant insistence on a supposed need to learn foreign languages has almost certainly added to the resistance because some perceive Irish to be of little practical advantage.

Yet problems with teaching Irish are not new. For many years, teachers have been saying that parental support with regard to promoting the language is lacking. So it is misguided to imagine that there was a golden age when the language flourished in primary schools, even with the incentive of the Primary Certificate.

This is a theme in the writings of John McGahern about which I have recently written a chapter for a volume on his work*. His attitude to the teaching of Irish was largely shaped by his experience as a primary teacher in the 1960s. He claimed that the language had no purchase in the lives of the great majority of the population and the policy of compulsory Irish was one more instrument of an illiberal and coercive State.

Despite all the effort that went into teaching Irish, pupils often learned no more than a few words and phrases that they forgot shortly afterwards. He also believed that much time was wasted in teaching Irish to the neglect of other subjects. Regrettably, a significant number of people appear to have learned little Irish at school. At the World Cup in the USA in 1994, many supporters in a bar where the match against Norway was being broadcast in Irish assumed that the commentator was speaking Norwegian.

This takes us to other reasons for the problems with the teaching of Irish. We hear often about the reluctance of some teachers to teach religion, but research is required on the extent to which teachers find teaching Irish satisfying and whether they are committed to promoting the language.

For some, the teaching of Irish may have become like the teaching of religion - something that they are obliged to do but for which they have little enthusiasm. The rationale for the inclusion of Irish in the curriculum has traditionally been associated with nationalist ideals. This has resulted in other benefits of learning the language being overlooked.

Study of Irish can serve as a linguistic apprenticeship that can help those who need to learn other languages. Learning any language, including Irish, can also contribute to increasing cultural and intellectual resources. The language introduces learners to the inner workings of Ireland's tradition of thought through revealing its unique linguistic map for representing the world.

The rationale for teaching Irish therefore needs to be more broadly re-imagined. Realistically though, this re-imagining may not address the problems that beset the teaching and learning of the language.

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Dublin City University. *John Mc Gahern: Authority And Vision, edited by Zeljka Doljanin and Máire Doyle (Manchester University Press, 2017)

Irish Independent

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