It would be a mistake to think that the issue of language – ‘compulsory’ or otherwise – is an issue that only pertains to Ireland. In fact, questions of language and how best to preserve and promote them are world-wide matters. In that regard, I would highly recommend David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language (Yale) in which the distinguished linguist looks at language in all its aspects: its origins; sounds; the development of grammar; placenames; the spread of language, its survival and, yes, death. He highlights that Britain is, in fact, a multilingual country and writes that there are 6,000 languages on the planet but that half of them will be dead within the next 100 years.
I have taken these two quotes from the book because I think they resonate in an Irish context. However, the book is fascinating; very readable and if you have an interest in language – even if it is just the English language – it would be well worth reading.
Anyway, here is the first quote:
“Bilingualism is a big issue in places like the USA, the UK, and Western Europe. That’s because there are places where for centuries most of the people spoke just one language, and saw other languages as inferior. Spanish was the language of Spain; French of France; English of Britain. Any other languages which happened to be spoken in these countries were dismissed as unimportant. They may even have been repressed, as in the case of Franco’s Spain. Other countries did similar things. Over a hundred years ago, if you were heard speaking Welsh in a school in Wales, you were punished. The same thing happened if you were caught speaking Breton at schools in Brittany in north-west France. Today, these communities are fighting back, wanting respect for their languages once again. Bilingualism has become a political issue.”
And the second one: “I hope you will care about the fact that so many languages in the world are dying … Half the languages of the world are likely to die out during this century. If their speakers want them saved, are there ways in which you can help? Yes, there are. Saving a language is possible if the public cares enough, and if the politicians care enough. It’s the politicians who control the purse-strings that can provide money to help languages survive. And who will vote in those politicians? You will. So: make them realize the importance of language diversity.”