Fine Gael's crude Irish language policy would undo decades of good work
OPINION:Evidence shows compulsion is only way to ensure survival of our ancestral tongue
FINE GAEL’S Irish language policy, which proposes that Irish should be an optional Leaving Certificate subject, is as puzzling as it is unsettling.
Poll after poll regarding the Irish language has confirmed the majority of the people of this country are supportive of State efforts to protect the language, efforts which, as have been shown by linguists such as Joshua Fishman, are necessary if minority languages such as Irish are to survive. Fine Gael canvassers on the ground have admitted the policy is very unpopular with voters.
What is unsettling about the policy is its blatant disregard for research on language education. One would have expected that policy would be informed by good practice in other countries.
Second language learning is compulsory in every country in Europe, except Scotland, for very good reasons. The somewhat naive argument put forward by Fine Gael that a stronger emphasis on the spoken language in the junior cycle will ensure greater numbers of motivated students will proceed to Leaving Cert has been firmly discounted by the English experience.
In 2004, when introducing optional second language learning after the age of 14, Labour ministers in the UK predicted the same outcome. The result in fact has been a decline of over one-third in numbers taking languages at GCSE in the past seven years, and a only a minority of students achieving A* to C grades in the subject.
The English have also learned that only compulsion ensures equality of access. Competition for resources has meant only large classes are given the opportunity to continue with their language, and then subject to the availability of a teacher, so only private schools have maintained their language numbers. It is safe to predict, therefore, that if the Fine Gael policy on Irish is implemented, events such as last night’s leaders’ debate on TG4 will become a thing of the past.
Many of us working in language education are painfully aware of the inadequacies of the system. There is no doubt that Irish, as currently taught, does not produce the desired numbers of students with high levels of communicative competence, although it should be recalled that some of the most proficient speakers are products of the educational system.
Levels achieved in other subjects are also less than satisfactory, a fact illustrated by the most recent report from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) on science, mathematics and literacy. Similarly, the suggestion from more than one election hopeful – that Irish students attain high levels of proficiency in foreign languages – has no basis in fact. We sat at the bottom of the last Eurobarometer survey (2006) on foreign language competence in the EU.
In 2005, the then minister for education and science invited an expert group from the Council of Europe to devise a language education policy profile for Ireland. From its recommendations, the Department of Education and Science, as it then was, convened a group to develop a language education policy.
The draft policy, addressing issues including the teaching and learning of Irish, was completed in April 2008 and is gathering dust. Instead, we are threatened with a crude policy which will undo decades of good work, undermining the status of a language which most of us wish to protect and consider an important part of our identity.
Linguist colleague Jocelyn Wyburd of the University of Manchester has researched the decline of language learning in England. She says: “Students will vote with their feet because they can . . . make Irish optional and watch it wither . . .”
Anna Ní Ghallachair is director of the language centre at NUI Maynooth