Parlez-vous Gaeilge?

Barry SingletonTuesday, 14 April 2009

When the Irish state was established in its current form in 1937, it was clear that the restoration of Irish as the ‘national language’ was a priority. The constitution gives primacy to Irish, recognising it as “the first official language”, with English following closely in second place.

What the special position afforded by the state to Irish meant in substance was not entirely clear. The constitution itself was debated and drafted in English and only subsequently translated into Irish. In the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Four Courts, just like in the population at large, English has always been much more widely used. While all government acts were automatically translated into Irish, the practice ceased in or about 1980 due to shortage of staff. The question of the language’s place in the running of the state remained dormant for over 20 years until a court case where the prosecuted wished to conduct his case through the Irish language. The issues raised ultimately prompted the Official Languages Act 2003.

The act aims to promote the use of Irish language for offi cial purposes to the state; to provide for the use of both official languages of the state in parliamentary proceedings, in acts of the Oireachtas, in the administration of justice, in communicating with or providing services to the public and in carrying out the work of public bodies.

These all sound good, but the practice is far-reaching, costly and entails the employment of a number of full time translators. Furthermore, not only do government acts have to be translated, printed and published, but so do reports of all state bodies, and their communications with the public have to be provided in Irish as well. Ultimately this runs into millions of euro every year.

Take for example a government handbook which was sent to all households detailing what precautions should be taken by families in case of an emergency. Yet unlike with multiple translations in instruction manuals, the addition of an Irish translation does not make the information accessible to more people. It does mean however that it doubled in size, costing significantly more to produce.

The Irish language was also given offi cial and working status in the European Union in 2005 yet despite this, fewer than 1 per cent of Dáil and Seanad debates are conducted in Irish. This has meant that since 1 January 2007, all key EU legislation has been translated into Irish. Translation, revision and publication services is estimated to cost the EU a total of €3.5 million.

In an interview with RTÉ News in 2005, the then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern said that Irish should have the same status as other languages in the EU yet when pressed about the signifi cant costs involved for seemingly no practical benefi t whatsoever, Mr Ahern said that it served as “a real psychological boost for the Irish language”.

If language was purely functional it seems that ideally we should abandon linguistic diversity as a nuisance, and adopt one universal language the world over; although we may disagree as to which one to adapt. The Irish language is clearly something worth preserving for its own sake, but have we got our priorities wrong in how we go about doing so?

The buzzword is ‘status’. Éamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, has argued that every language relies on status for survival, and that much damage done to the Irish language was due to the low status accorded to it historically. The remedy is apparently to accord it high status to make it grow and survive.

Status is something a language gains when people use it, and in order for people to do so, they need to be provided with opportunities. This is why Gaelscoils and events run by Irish societies at third-level are critically important. The problem is, especially considering what it costs, the Offi cial Languages Act doesn’t seem to provide any meaningful opportunities for people to use the language.

There is perhaps a more fundamental problem with these types of promotions; they focus on providing opportunities to use the language for those already fl uent, rather than encouraging people to learn it in the fi rst place. Ultimately it is the Government’s job to encourage their citizens to learn the language in the fi rst place.

It is no secret that children learn languages much easier than adults do, and we all learn a language best through immersion. However, primary schools teachers only required to secure grades which hover above a pass in the language in their exams. Considering that fluent speakers are expected to achieve a higher grade with modest effort this is hardly encouraging. Perhaps that €3.5 million money could be better spent in training as opposed to translation first.

The problem is that many of these primary schools teachers themselves were victims to the same inadequate teaching. There is no easy solution to such a problem, but more training and offering incentives for teachers who excel at Irish and teaching it to raise standards may be a place to start.

There is a real danger that unless we learn and live our culture, we will have no more ownership over it than anyone else; it will be as much a part of who we are as the language of any other dead civilization. In an economic climate where resources are becoming increasingly limited, arguments to invest in abstract concepts like status, over teaching, become increasingly less convincing.