Cupla focal - Why we need a national language policy


Teaching Matters: For those of you who didn't notice, this week is Seachtain na Gaeilge. One of the main aims of this annual celebration of culture is to promote the Irish language, particularly to overseas guests, through Irish classes, music and artistic activities. It also provides us with an opportunity to have a serious look at the state of the first official language that stretches beyond promoting it to visitors along with leprechauns, shamrock and parades.

And in saying that I don't want to disparage the aims and efforts of those organising Seachtain na Gaeilge. Even a cursory glance through the Seachtain na Gaeilge website reveals the huge range of activities that have been organised. Any visitor to these shores this week, with an interest in the language, would surely be impressed.

But scratch the surface, move beyond the promotion, and it is clear that all is not well. Yes our visitors, if so inclined, can go to music nights, table quizzes, poetry readings, bingo, religious services and even a murder-mystery night where they will hear the language being used. However, let visitors with the "cúpla focal" ask directions from a random 50 passers-by in Dublin and I guarantee you that most of those questioned assume that they are speaking their own, rather than our, native language.

Inevitably, when the Irish language comes up for discussion the focus of attention turns to schools. Pat Kenny put it to the Minister for Education and Science last week that we spend hundreds of millions of euro every year teaching the language which, except for the Gaelscoileanna, fails. We got the usual comment from him about the Leaving Certificate pupil who can't string a coherent sentence together. The Minister expressed her concern about the state of the language and her hope that the revised curriculum in primary schools would provide the panacea. She went on to express her belief that if 50 per cent of the marks went for oral Irish in the Leaving Certificate it would encourage students and change the culture of the examination.

This last point has been mooted before. But most primary teachers will tell you that if you want to achieve the coherent sentence that will satisfy Pat Kenny then you must introduce far more radical reform than tinkering with an end-of-line examination. The primary school curriculum is where change needs to be focused.

For, despite the new emphasis on spoken Irish, I do not believe the type of change that the Minister wishes to see will come to pass. Reading and writing in Irish is still introduced far too early in the primary school and I believe that this is one of the major reasons for the failure in Irish. Reading and writing eat into the time available for speaking the language, so oral competency is compromised. And because they are introduced too early there is an inadequate oral language base on which to build reading and writing competency.

And that's without looking at the confusion caused for pupils trying to learn to read two languages at an early stage.

It's not rocket science. There is no second language reading and writing in infant classes in the primary school. Most parents of children this age witness at first hand the enthusiasm of infants for spoken Irish. Most respond using the cúpla focal of their own. All in all, learning Irish in these classes is a positive experience both at home and in school. But watch how this initial enthusiasm withers and dies for both parents and pupils when the books, spelling and grammar appear. It also affects teacher enthusiasm for the language because they see at first hand how the system itself is set up for failure.

So instead of having a headline-grabbing "Fifty per cent of marks for oral Irish" let's have some radical curricular reform. There should be spoken Irish only in the primary school or at least until the pupils reach fifth or sixth class. Let's do without textbooks, teach grammar through everyday usage and curb enthusiasm for accurate spelling for that time.

But this or any other type of reform is practically impossible because of the complete lack of a national language policy. As a result we have curriculums at first and second level with different emphases. Where policy is drawn up, it sometimes appears to be in reaction to a single incident. A good example, reported in this paper in recent months, is where the Department of Education appears to be seeking to overturn the long-established language immersion policy in a successful Gaelscoil in Tralee, Co Kerry. Single events are rarely a good basis for national decision.

Without a national language policy we will continue to need Seachtain na Gaeilge to convince visitors - and even many at home - that there is an Irish language. Without such a policy future generations will develop the "baggage" that is common for most people who have been through the school system here. (Note how most newcomer children don't have these problems.) Without a national language policy, apart from Seachtain na Gaeilge, most will get precious few opportunities to hear Irish spoken and use the cúpla focal.

Valerie Monaghan is principal of Scoil Chiarán, Glasnevin, Dublin