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Irish language ‘definitely endangered’ as linguists predict it will vanish in the next century

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Irish is one of 12 languages in the EU at most risk of extinction, according to language learning platform Busuu.

The study, which was collated using data from UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger, lists Irish as “definitely endangered”.

Busuu ranked the 12 languages in one of four categories used in the Atlas: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered or critically endangered. 

Rather than being decided by the number of speakers worldwide, this risk factor to a language is determined by its ‘intergenerational transmission’ - whether older generations pass on the language to younger generations.

Linguists predict that at least 43pc of languages currently spoken in the world today will likely disappear in the next century, including Irish. 

Lead Language Expert at Busuu, Federico Espinosa, told Independent.ie that although the 2016 census stated that 1.7 million people in Ireland could speak Irish, this figure is likely to be significantly lower. 

UNESCO’s Atlas, along with Google, estimates that there are between 20,000 and 40,000 Irish speakers in the world. 

"Maybe to take the stigma out of being an endangered language there are about 7,000 languages in the world and about half of them are predicted to be extinct by the end of the century, which is by UNESCO’s reckoning as well as Google,” he said. 

“Both of them cited similar numbers of 20,000 to 40,000 speakers of Irish currently in the world and I think that’s quite a bit lower than some estimates that put it at 1.7 million according to the census in 2016.

"That’s because a lot of people who answered yes to the question might speak some Irish- so it’s kind of what the definition of speaking it is and if they are really fluent.”

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Mr Espinosa said a big reason for languages being endangered is due to many people no longer living in the same region as their families. 

"It’s also mostly because people don’t teach it to their children anymore, globalisation is the key issue,” he added.

"People learn languages that they see as useful and functional and that kind of limits the ability to really dive into the debts of some of the languages that are much more culturally significant to them but maybe not one that they are going to learn to high levels of proficiency.

"I think it’s also because motivation is going. Ultimately, language learning is hard and learning a language that you don’t need to use every day can be hard to motivate your children to do or people to do.”

When asked how Ireland can encourage the language to be spoken more, the language expert said he believes a lot is already being done.

“I really don’t know as I think the government is doing such a good job already with the fact that it’s a mandatory school subject and it’s on TV and radio,” he said.

“Most governments to some extent or another are trying to save languages, Wales is with Welsh, Scotland is trying to save Scots Gaelic, and Isle of Man is trying to save Manx, yet all of these languages are still going.”

In response to the study, a spokesperson for the Department of the Gaeltacht said the Government remains committed to its 20-year strategy for the Irish language which was launched in 2010 along with its action plan for the Irish language launched in 2018. 

"The Irish language planning process remains an important part of this,” the spokesperson said.

"The department has approved 22 language plans in respect of Gaeltacht language planning areas, three Irish language networks and three Gaeltacht service towns.

"Today Jack Chambers TD, Government Chief Whip and Minister of State for the Gaeltacht and

Sport, announced on a visit to Galway City and the Connemara Gaeltacht that he has approved two further language plans under the language planning process, in respect of Galway City and the Gaeltacht Language Planning Area of Bearna & Cnoc na Cathrach respectively.”


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