After 13 years learning Irish I couldn’t hold a basic conversation

Moving to London has given me a renewed appreciation for my native language

Katie (pictured with her granny Patty): Is it any wonder so few children develop a love for the language, when all it’s used for is asking to go to the toilet?

Katie (pictured with her granny Patty): Is it any wonder so few children develop a love for the language, when all it’s used for is asking to go to the toilet?

 

You would think having spent 13 years learning Irish at school that I’d have been able to hold a basic conversation. But along with most people who have gone through the Irish education system, I was left wondering why I couldn’t, and whether I’d ever learn.

When I was growing up in Ireland – and until quite recently, I admit – the phrase “Seachtain na Gaeilge” gave me shivers down my spine; the thought of being confronted with a conversation as Gaeilge would fill me with anxiety.

At primary school whenever the teacher said it was time for Irish there was a unanimous groan as we took out our books begrudgingly. Our lessons comprised some form of recitation of verbs, spellings or out-dated poetry of little interest to 10-year-olds, so we shared the teacher’s lack of enthusiasm for the subject.

Irish was confined to its allocated section of the day, never spoken outside unless it was to ask, “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?” It was never incorporated into our daily school lives; we saw it as a chore.

All it was used for was to ask permission to go to the toilet. So is it any wonder so few children develop a love for the language?

Cultural identity

After moving to London I became quite resentful of the fact that I couldn’t speak Irish. I would see families and friends of other nationalities conversing with each other and it struck me that I hadn’t valued how significant the Irish language was to my cultural identity.

Why is it that unless you grew up in a Gaeltacht, or in an Irish-speaking household, or were sent to the Gaeltacht in summer, most people who have gone through the Irish education system cannot speak Irish well? It seems ludicrous that Scandinavian countries introduce English to children at the same time as we do Irish, yet they manage to master it.

I suppose when people can see the worth in learning a language, it is easy to get motivated. We never saw a value in Irish, it was shrouded in negativity. That attitude has changed in recent years and Irish people now are proud to speak Irish. Even if it is just having a natter on the tube in London with your friend about the “buachaill deas” sitting to your right, it’s a valuable commodity for our culture, at home and abroad.

For me the challenge was to let go of the fear I had embedded in me from primary school of getting it wrong. I had always felt that if I tried to speak Irish or to drop in a word here or there, that a gaeilgeoir might hear my attempt and let out a sneer from behind a pillar.

It all seems ridiculous now, but I know I am not alone in having had a fear of speaking the language. I was afraid of not being right and was convinced that Irish speakers were not there to help. That is not the case but it took moving to another country to make me realise that. Sure at the end of the day no one really cares whether you speak Irish or not, apart from you and you always have the opportunity to change that.

Irish class

My Irish class in London is taught by Christy Evans, an Armagh man who moved to London as child with his family. He has been the ideal tutor to dispel any negative connotations and fears around speaking Irish. He has ensured that we believe that Irish is our language, that it belongs to us and it can belong to anyone who wants it.

The majority of the class is made up of Irish people who, like me, studied the subject at school. The minority of the class is made up of second-generation Irish or people who have no connection.

Christy’s encouraging nature means the fear of getting it “wrong” is soon cast aside as we know there won’t be a deafening roar from the top of the classroom like many of us experienced before. When I was at school there was little encouragement around Irish. These classes are funded by the Irish Government, which recognises the interest from the diaspora in learning Irish.

Language revival

It is sad to think that so many Irish people don’t have conversational Irish. They may be able to write you a formal letter of complaint or answer comprehension questions with a formula, but they won’t be able to ask you how your weekend was. However, as with anything, there is no point in dwelling on how you don’t have it – your primary school teacher certainly isn’t losing sleep over your level of Irish 25 years after classes ended.

There is always time. There are classes happening if you look for them all over Ireland, and the world. You can even practise with Duolingo on your phone.

It is an exciting time for the Irish language revival and a time for everyone to realise that we can all have Irish if we want it, and with our cúpla focail we can practice proudly anywhere in the world.

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