'Speaking Irish to my baby son in London is creating a special bond'

New playgroup as Gaeilge is helping parents reconnect with the language, and each other

 

The first word I said to my newborn son was “Fáilte”, and eight months later, I’ve spoken to him almost entirely in Irish.

Up to that point, as is the case for many Irish people, my Leaving Certificate oral exam was the longest conversation in Irish I’d ever had, in all it’s ten minutes of nervous banality.

When I decided to speak to my first child in Irish, I had no idea the adventure that was about to begin. His mother didn’t speak a word, and we live in London, but I hoped our child would have a stronger sense of his Irish identity - and a unique connection with me - if we could communicate through my second language, Irish.

It’s been a huge learning curve, but no more than every other aspect of becoming a parent. I’ve learned to change nappies, while also learning the Irish word for nappy (clúidín). I’ve realised the most fundamental gaps in my Irish - from what to say when he sneezes (Dia leat) to all the verses of Baidín Fheilimí (though with the names of the Donegal islands sometimes exchanged for East London neighbourhoods).

James McDonald has been speaking in Irish to his son Solomon since he was born.

The reaction from other people have been the biggest surprise, with friends and family using their cúpla focail with our son from time to time. Even his mamaí George has picked up a few words, and can ask him if his bainne is blasta and to say slán with him when I leave for work in the morning.

When we’re out and about, people don’t bat an eyelid, as it’s nothing unusual to hear just one of the hundreds of languages in London.

The repetitive nature of speaking to a baby turns out to be perfect way for a learner like me to increase their vobabulary, and it certainly helps prevent the mundane things such as feeding, clothing and bathing getting tedious.

After a few months though, I was feeling a bit isolated as the only person properly speaking Irish to my son. I knew that if he was to speak as well as understand Irish properly, he’d need to hear other people speaking it too, so I started making enquiries to find any Irish speaking playgroups or naoinraí in London.

It turned out that there hadn’t been one in London for over ten years, but with the support of the London Irish Centre and the wider Irish community, a few of us parents have now started an Irish playgroup for a new generation.

The London Irish Playgroup has since attracted dozens of families from across London and neighbouring counties, with children from newborn up to eight years old. We meet monthly at the London Irish Centre in Camden to sing songs, read stories, and use the bit of Irish we have with our children.

Research suggests this bilingual upbringing has numerous benefits for mental development, not only connecting children to the language of some of their ancestors, but also giving them a headstart in learning other languages so they can connect with the wider world.

In the meantime, it’s a great source of fun for my son and I, and a special way I have chosen to communicate my love to him.

For more information, join the London Irish Playgroup on Facebook, or email shanakee@gmail.com.

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