Sunday 21 April 2019

No compulsory resuscitation can ever revive Irish

Emer O'Kelly

DID you know that languages exist independently of educational institutions? And did you know that the language education process in primary schools in Gaeltacht areas in Ireland needs, according to experts, to be targeted atrevitalisation rather than maintenance?

Translated into plain English, or for that matter into plain Irish, it means that Irish is not a living language, but a dead one. Nor do you have to feel guilty if you haven't a word of Irish after having gone through the schools system because expert opinion holds that "strong acts of individual will and sacrifice" are necessary for the revitalisation process.

It's a far cry from the feel-good factor that pretends that everyone has a reasonable working grasp of Irish, with a large percentage of people fluent in and using it on a regular basis. In fact, it endorses the opposite perspective borne out by the huge increase in the numbers of school pupils opting out of sitting the Leaving Certificate exam in Irish.

The bald facts come from a series of documents provided by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the body which has produced new draft proposals for the teaching and examining of Irish at school level.

An NCCA survey of language and literature in Irish states that all languages exist independently of educational institutions and that they do not need educational systems to survive. That in itself is an acknowledgement that Irish is in a false state of existence: it has been bolstered by its compulsory inclusion in the educational syllabus since the formation of the State.

Equally, the document states, education in itself adds nothing intrinsic to a language. Exactly.

I recall a few years ago, my niece, then preparing for the Junior Certificate exam, be-moaning the fact that she hadn't written her weekend Irish essay on drugs. Impressed at the modernisation of themes, I asked her what the Irish word for drugs was. "Druggai" was the reply. Oh dear. A living, intrinsiclanguage?

Just two days ago, I passed a sign on the N11: 'Rugby Club'. Underneath: 'Club Rugbai'.

Language so bereft of modern terminology is not merely moribund, it's dead. And not even "strong acts of individual will and sacrifice" are going to bring it back to life.

And why should they be called for?

Language is a tool and a means: it is the method of communication of need, desire, thought, and opportunity. At the level of literature, it can be a profoundly enriching adjunct to emotional and intellectual life.

But sacrifice and will on the part of the individual? It sounds like the catechism, talking about a strong and perfect faith.

The bottom line is communication, and I recall a Donegal man telling me that not too many years ago a little boy was brought into hospital in his county. It was a time before there was easy transport or even a remote understanding of the emotional needs of children, and the little boy had neither mother nor father present.

The nurses and doctors couldn't understand his cries, and wondered why his voice was getting weaker: the child was calling for "Uisce".

Nobody knew he wanted water. But no doubt the defenders of the Gaeltacht purity of his home place thought that the preservation of the language was more important than the child's ability to survive in the outside environment that included serious illness in hospital.

According to the NCCA, the democratisation of education in the second half of the 20th century has meant the beginning of diverse linguistic policies, with the encouragement of bi-lingualism and pluri-lingualism. Translated (again) into plain English, it should mean that schools think it's a great idea for children to speak several languages inter-changeably.

But in Ireland we only mean it in relation to Irish: when children in Gaeltacht areas use English interchangeably, there's blue bloody murder. (Ask the people of Dingle Daingean.)

According to UNESCO, it is a "negation of identity" when children go to school and their own language is not used. Again, we support that notion very firmly when children from Gaeltacht areas come into contact with English. But when little children in the suburbs of Dublin and Waterford are sent to Gael-scoileanna, and hear Irish being spoken all round them for the first time, having only heard English previously, nobody thinks that's a negation of identity. The fact that their parents have chosen to impose this negation on them doesn't alter the fact.

In any case, this sudden immersion of children in Irish, which parents (and the authorities) find so desirable ignores the fact that a report in 1991 found that schools have limited value in language revival. Revival must be "located primarily in the home domain, in parent-child transmission." Hey, a mhamai, se sios to you.

When there is no intrinsic word or phrase in a language for anything new to the world in the past hundred years or so, that language is not alive. And if we acknowledged that, we might have a better chance of preserving Irish, not as the living language it isn't, but as a piece of our indigenous history. It would be better than nothing; and it would have the advantage of honesty.

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