Early exposure to English is damaging the standard of Irish among Gaeltacht young

Research indicates that young Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht are hit by a subtractive form of bilingualism

Speaking two languages, when one of them is a minority language, is a complex affair. A new book, Analysis of Bilingual Competence: Language Acquisition among Young People in the Gaeltacht, compares the linguistic ability in Irish and English of young Gaeltacht bilinguals whose home language is Irish.

This study finds their ability in Irish has been compromised by early bilingualism. The evidence indicates that young Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht are exhibiting a subtractive form of bilingualism. Their experience of early bilingualism with English is resulting in a higher level of competence in English than in Irish during the critical period for language acquisition, zero to eight years of age (and on to 12).

Children with the greatest exposure to English-speaking pupils at school have the lowest level of Irish competence. Young home speakers of Irish are not balanced bilinguals: their ability in Irish leaves them at a disadvantage.

This subtractive bilingualism (similar to many minority language groups; Spanish speakers in the United States, for example) contrasts with the additive bilingualism experienced by speakers of majority languages who acquire a second language (as is common in Gaelscoileanna) in that the additional language of majority speakers may enhance their social and professional opportunities, without being detrimental to their first language.


A competence in English, of course, enhances the prospects of Irish speakers also.

Dual language competence

Analysis of bilingual competence is based on research commissioned by an Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta (cogg.ie) and is the first comparative bilingual study of its kind in Ireland.

Fifty home speakers of Irish, aged seven to 12, were recorded speaking in Irish and English while engaged in narration and other communicative tasks. The main findings were:

  • the students' linguistic competence is more functional in English than it is in their home language, Irish;
  • the language abilities of those students who scored lowest for English in the research were comparable with those who scored highest for Irish;
  • on aggregate, the research indicated a 15 per cent advantage in favour of English in language competences;
  • a comparison of the relevant scores for 10 comparable linguistic variables (word count fluency, for example) shows a ratio of 7:3 in favour of English.

The linguistic disadvantage in Irish is mirrored in the sociolinguistic disadvantage of Irish-speaking communities generally; that is, Irish as a spoken language has been severely eroded, even in Gaeltacht areas.

When the findings of this study are examined alongside other recent research, it is clear this linguistic dysfunction has emerged from a breakdown in the relationship between the home transmission of Irish, community reinforcement and educational structures.

Fragile acquisition

The Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (2007) demonstrated that language acquisition is very fragile among Gaeltacht families due to the continuing erosion of the proportion of active Irish speakers, even in the strongest Gaeltacht areas. A knock-on effect is the increased English-language socialisation among young people. This means Irish no longer has access to the normal social processes to maintain it as a socially relevant and functional community language.

The dysfunctional aspects of Irish-language acquisition in the Gaeltacht are a linguistic depiction of a broader social process. They mirror the marginalisation of a minority group that is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its hold even within its traditional districts.

Official response often seems insensitive, indifferent or in denial about how difficult it is to raise children as fully competent speakers of Irish in the Gaeltacht.

This study is an analysis of the crisis in the social use of Irish in the Gaeltacht. Hopefully, the results will enhance the scientific basis for supporting and educating young Irish speakers. It poses a significant challenge to educational, regional and socio- cultural policymakers.

It is important to acknowledge these are difficult challenges. The issues raised in this book are much deeper than the cultural integrity of Ireland’s “first” – albeit minority – language. They indicate another significant aspect of the crisis in contemporary democracy: real people, real communities, the real needs of young people being inadequately addressed or rendered inconsequential by agencies supposed to serve them.

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the Soillse research professor in the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland. He is one the authors, along with Tamás Péterváry, Brian Ó Curnáin and Jerome Sheahan, of Analysis of Bilingual Competence: Language Acquisition among Young People in the Gaeltacht (published by COGG)