In a chilly hall in Loreto Bray, Co Wicklow, a group of Transition Year students are arguing about whether learning Chinese would be a better option than learning Irish.
It’s the usual debate about culture versus practicality. Impressively, at least one girl has experience of both: “I’m learning Chinese and trust me, Irish is way easier.” These girls are taking part in a student outreach roadshow that youth co-ordinator for Conradh na Gaeilge Aodhán Ó Dea has been presenting in various schools during the past three years. The idea is to get students thinking about their attitudes to Irish and to inspire them to use the language outside of school.
“A lot of the time I’d find that students like the idea of the language,” says Ó Dea. “They don’t want to lose it, but often they say they don’t enjoy learning it. In some of the wealthier schools, the level of Irish is good, but the attitude towards it is downright hostile, and on the other hand some schools where standards aren’t great, the students are really receptive and enthusiastic about its importance to our culture.”
It's a thorny subject. Why, with 13 or 14 years of instruction and learning in Irish, does research show standards continue to fall? A 2006 report by Dr John Harris from Trinity College found a sharp fall in the standard of Irish among sixth-class students between 1985 and 2002. It also found a quarter of Irish primary school teachers believed their own standard of Irish to be "weak".
Last November, the chief inspector’s report said students’ learning was “less than satisfactory in almost a quarter of Irish lessons in primary schools and almost a third of Irish lessons in post-primary schools”. The report was also concerned about language competence of teachers in a “small but significant number of classrooms”.
Irish can be successfully taught, the students in Loreto Bray, for example, have a really good level of Irish, but that success is less common than it should be. So how can we improve?
Plans at primary level
At primary level a new integrated language curriculum is due for junior classes this September. It's not before time. The curriculum in place since 1999 intended to encourage a communicative, task-based approach, but while the document itself is wonderfully child-centred and idealistic, it seems to ignore the fact that for most children, and indeed, teachers, Irish is a second language and needs to be learned rather than absorbed.
Another, very simple problem with the old curriculum is that it was only available in Irish. For a busy teacher, this is an added obstacle, even for those with a reasonable proficiency in the language.
"We need an integrated teaching programme of Irish for English-medium schools," says Deirbhile Nic Craith, education officer with the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO). "Previously, we had the Buntús Cainte which had step-by-step lessons for teachers. In Irish-medium primary schools, they have the Séideán Sí which is excellent but we have nothing like that for English-medium schools. We need a programme that integrates the various curriculum strands so busy teachers aren't entirely left up to their own devices to plan."
This is an important point. Teachers need the support of a formal structure, an ABC of what to teach, right from oral Irish lessons in infant classes. There needs to be a clear and steady progression through the course. At the moment, there is no structure for teachers to follow. A clear, step-by-step, framework of Irish lesson plans, similar to French or Spanish, would benefit children and teachers who are less confident in their own command of the language.
The new curriculum, which will be introduced to junior classes (up to second class) in September 2014, will give teachers far more support in terms of what to teach and how to teach it. It will include a step-by-step guide about how to achieve particular curricular objectives. The curriculum will be published online to enable teachers to click through to the material and supports. Making an English-language version of the document would certainly help teachers, but some people involved in teacher-training acknowledge that such a move would be met with hostility from Irish language groups.
Pádraig Ó Duibhir of St Patrick's College Drumcondra, with his colleague Prof Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto, has conducted a review for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) of strategies proven to work for language learning in the lead up to this upcoming curriculum review.
“Part of the issue is the system of 30 or 40 minutes a day for Irish in primary school,” says Ó Duibhir. “That drip drip approach has not been successful for Welsh in Wales or French in Canada. Schools achieving good results here have children using Irish outside the Irish class. One school, for example has had great success with a Lá na Gaeilge where everyone makes an effort to speak Irish on one day each week. The children have a need to use it. In practising it, they experience success, which further motivates them.”
An approach to language learning that takes the language outside of the language class has been successful. In Cordoba in Spain teachers are encouraged to teach one subject apart from English, through English. “PE and art are easy ways into that sort of approach. Science could work too,” Ó Duibhir says.
Such an approach assumes a good level of competence from teachers and, as seen in the Harris report, that assumption is not always accurate. "Take teacher-training for second level," says Anna Ní Ghallachair, director of the Language Centre in NUI Maynooth. "Entrants need a BA or a Masters' in Irish, but what exactly does that mean in terms of their competence in the language? For primary-school teaching, higher-level Irish is a pre-requisite for entry into college, but again, does that really tell us anything about their language competence?"
One suggestion is for teachers to achieve a minimum level of competency as laid out by the common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This is a guide to describe the achievements of language learners across Europe. It is standardised and allows teachers and students understand what level of skill they have attained. The European certificate of Irish, the Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge (TEG), has been designed within this framework. People taking the TEG can sit a series of six exams that test for proficiency from absolute beginner right through to advanced.
Siuán Ní Mhaonaigh, the director of TEG, says "I firmly believe much of the tinkering being done to syllabi is unnecessary," she says. "A practical and valid testing system would go a long way towards improving things for Irish. At the moment we are not asking the right questions in our exams."
Indeed, a lack of a recognised acceptable standard is a problem across the board. In first year of secondary school, a maths teacher can assume a certain level of numerical ability among students and can therefore build on that. An Irish teacher on the other hand could be faced with students who have excellent Irish alongside others who have barely a word. They aren’t so much building on a foundation as being forced to start from scratch.
“Standardised tests in Irish have been developed,” Nic Craith says. “If they were used it would give us some idea of what teachers could expect.”
Nic Craith agrees that using the common European Framework of Reference for Languages could be a very useful tool, both within schools and in teacher-training. It would be an independent benchmark of a student or a teacher’s true ability and it would give students and teachers something to work towards. Proper assessment can be a motivator in and of itself.
However, by the time students reach second level, for many, a rot has already set in. Those who have a good level of Irish face boredom while the teacher tries to bring other students along, while students who have already experienced eight years of fruitless teaching and learning are more resistant and discouraged than ever. Students who are willing and happy to learn French and Spanish don’t see Irish in the same light. They have already learned it for eight years, they can’t speak it and therefore must be terrible at it.
The Leaving Cert’s two papers and the oral and aural exams can seem like too much work and many students opt for ordinary level as a strategy to allow them to focus on other subjects. The literature, it is argued, is off-putting and distracts from Irish as a language. Conradh na Gaeilge proposes that Irish at Leaving Cert should be subdivided into communicative Irish, which would be compulsory and which would take the oral language, written communication, comprehension and so-on, and an advanced option which would encompass poetry and literature. Others argue this would dumb down the subject with no evidence that the language would experience any boost as a result.
“We need to ask ourselves, are we teaching Irish for cultural reasons, or for it to be used?” says Dr Muiris Ó Laoire, a lecturer and researcher on multi-lingualism in IT Tralee. “If we want it to be used, we need to rethink what we’re doing. How are we going to provide meaningful opportunities for use? It can be done but it is a challenge.”
“The teaching and learning of the language can, and does work,” says Ní Ghallachair. But for it to be more successful, we need to acknowledge the effort needed. We need to examine how teachers are trained to teach, how students are taught to learn and how all are motivated to use it. “Irish depends on the commitment of a school and teachers in a way other subjects don’t,” says Ó Duibhir. “But I think our expectations are unrealistic. That’s not to say the way things are is okay, but I do think that when it comes to Irish, perhaps we need to redefine what success is.”