Ensuring the Irish language has its place


A planned 'vision statement' on Irish must include a pledge not to weaken the language in the education system, writes Dr John Walsh

The Government's impending "vision statement" on Irish presents an opportunity to provide some much-needed clarity in relation to both language policy and language planning. As these terms are not widely used in public debate in Ireland, a brief explanation may be useful. Not all experts in the field agree that there is a distinction between language policy and language planning, but I understand policy to refer to the general aims in relation to a language or languages, and planning to refer to the specific interventionist measures which will be taken to achieve the aims.

For several decades now, successive governments have accepted that the sociolinguistic reality in Ireland (ie, the overwhelming dominance of English over Irish) would be extremely difficult to reverse. Therefore, policy in relation to Irish has been based on bilingualism. However, as bilingualism is a complex concept, the Government should specify what exactly it has in mind.

The cornerstone of any policy should be that all people living in Ireland (regardless of ethnic background) may learn Irish and use it freely with the State and in other domains of public and private life. The Government should pledge to increase the number of domains where a clear choice exists between Irish and English.

The notion of choice is essential to bilingual provision: if a person cannot choose one language as easily as the other, the policy is meaningless.

Such a declaration would be in line with the provisions of the Official Languages Act which obliges the State to increase its provision of services in Irish. However, it would also indicate the Government's willingness to extend bilingual provision beyond the State sector alone, on a phased and voluntary basis.

The recent announcement by the all-Ireland language body, Foras na Gaeilge, of a new scheme to support the use of Irish by private business is a welcome development, as is the commitment of Údarás na Gaeltachta to develop "language-centred" micro-businesses in the Gaeltacht.

To implement such a policy, a national plan for Irish is required.

A national language plan exists for Welsh and will soon be agreed for Scottish Gaelic, but there is no indication that a plan for Irish is a priority for Government. This is a serious deficiency which needs to be addressed; at the moment, it is not even clear which Government department or State body for Irish has overall responsibility for language planning. A national plan must include a strategy to recruit adequate numbers of Irish speakers to public jobs, to comply with the Official Languages Act. It should also provide a framework for micro-level language planning in Gaeltacht communities and throughout Ireland.

Given the recent closure of the Linguistics Institute of Ireland, a national research institute for Irish is required. Such an institute could be located within the third-level sector. Among the research fields which could be prioritised are: why and how Irish is acquired (or not acquired); developing a language planning structure; and "corpus planning" initiatives such as terminology and standardisation.

There has been much controversy in recent months about the status of Irish as a school subject. Rather than accepting Enda Kenny's ill-informed suggestion that Irish be made optional as a Leaving Certificate subject, any vision statement should contain a pledge not to weaken further the status of the language in the education system.

A review of the teaching and learning of Irish has been demanded in many quarters, but such action is meaningless if conducted in a vacuum.

It is pointless to expect a substantial improvement in students' ability in Irish without considering the factors which influence the motivation to learn the language in the first place, or its status in society. Such factors exert a powerful influence on what happens in the classroom, and cannot be separated from any review of the curriculum or teaching methods.

Efforts should also be made to increase students' language awareness and understanding of issues such as bilingualism and language rights in an increasingly globalised world.

Another element of Irish in education, often overlooked, is the network of adult learners of Irish. This sector needs to be co-ordinated, through the establishment of a teaching and learning authority for adult Irish learners. NUI Galway is already undertaking pioneering work in this area, but the sector needs to be consolidated. In co-operation with Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht could be developed as a "learning region" where the teaching and learning of Irish would be developed strategically. The recent commitment of Údarás to developing language-based industries is a welcome step towards achieving this goal.

Besides a clearly-defined policy and plan for Irish, the Government also needs to consider a strategy on languages in general. Such a strategy must not be used to marginalise Irish further, but should tackle the stark fact that Irish people in general have poor linguistic ability compared to other Europeans. The dominance of English globally has undoubtedly contributed to this situation. However, such entrenched monolingualism has major cultural and economic disadvantages.

Far more co-ordinated effort is required to ensure that more people living in Ireland can choose to use Irish and improve their ability in other languages.

Dr John Walsh is a lecturer in the School of Irish at NUI, Galway