The Business of Saving Irish

One of the strangest sensations about being in Ireland is seeing the use of a written language you just about never actually hear spoken in day-to-day life.  Ireland is through and through an English-speaking nation.  Some of the greatest plays, books, and poems in the English language come from Irish authors.

I question how obvious it is that Ireland is officially not just an English-speaking country though.  While I’m sure plenty of people know this already, for those who don’t, Ireland’s first official language and the national language is actual Irish (or Gaelic as it’s more commonly known to Americans).

That’s why it’s so strange being in Ireland.  Although Irish and English are always side-by-side in publicly funded spaces and government organizations, the actual sounds of Irish are seldom heard—really almost never.  While in Ireland, the only times I actually heard Irish spoken were on the train (announcements) and while flipping through the radio in a car (RTÉ 2 is the national radio station in Irish): that was it.  I saw it written plenty, but in real life it was nowhere to be heard.

With a population of 4.5 million (all of whom learned Irish in school) fewer than 100,000 are believed to speak the language with some higher level of fluency.  Irish barely managed to survive a vicious onslaught that almost made the language extinct, so it’s amazing it has even survived as a living language; still that language is struggling to survive at the hands of English.

The government is making attempts to save the language.  Obviously the official status is a major step (it is also an official in the EU, but was not made official until Ireland had already been part of the EU for 30 years and was first used in the EU parliament almost three years after it was made official), as is the very obvious use of written Irish in publicly funded spaces and the compulsory Irish-language classes for all students in Ireland until the end of secondary school. But it is a joke if anybody really thinks this is enough.  The language is not going to survive as a vibrant national language if fewer than 100,000 people in a growing population actually use it.

I’ve come to the determination though that the cultural and emotional appeal to increase the use of Irish in day-to-day life is not going to work.  If something is really going to happen the Irish government has to make a massive investment in expanding the role of Irish in daily-life as well as really sell this to the Irish people.  Part of that is going to be the cultural and emotional appeal to the Irish to save the language and protect a very unique and important part of Irish cultural heritage, but at the other end the government really has to show that 1) the Irish will also not loose their ability to speak English with the same fluency.  In the global economy the role of English as one of the languages of the Irish will be paramount in retaining Ireland’s position as a place worth making investments; it also can’t be ignored that part of Ireland’s disproportionately large cultural heritage is also English and 2) that an investment in Irish will yield results.

How would this happen though?  I honestly have no idea.  How you get 4.5 million people to start speaking a second language that is spoken nowhere else in the world, that isn’t a major cultural, academic, scientific, or business language is honestly beyond me.  I don’t think this is impossible though.  During my travels I considered this conundrum a lot and came up with a plan that I think could actually be a good blue print to making Ireland a truly bilingual nation, where both English and Irish are seen as well as heard.

  1. Education: The Irish government has got it right in that education is an important place to start getting people to speak Irish.  Students stay in the system the majority of their formative years and let’s face it public education systems are what you use to influence people.  They have it totally wrong though in teaching Irish as essentially a second language.  From what I know from Irish friends and family (as well as the internet), Irish language classes are the only place that Irish is heard in schools.  Otherwise it sounds like everything else is taught in English.  This isn’t going to get Irish anywhere. The Irish language needs to become the primary language of education, because that is the way the language will take on a highly influential role in a major part of Irish daily-life.  English would have to remain an important part of education though, I would just introduce it incrementally creating a system that looks something like this:
    1. Early Childhood Education (Pre-school/Kindergarten): all lessons are in Irish with exposure to English.  This can include exposing children to things like the names of colors, shapes, the alphabet or animals in Irish and English, much like what we see increasingly with Spanish in the USA today (Dora the Explorer anybody?)
    2. Primary School: All lessons would be in Irish with the exception of English lessons and would be the only classroom settings where English is the spoken language.
    3. Secondary School: English would gain a much greater role, however English would not be the dominant language.  English would be the language of instruction for math, science, and English literature classes.  Social science, foreign language and liberal arts classes would continue to be taught in Irish.
    4. University, Professional and Vocational Education: Presumably English would be the main language, but Irish could and should still play an important role.  One or two Irish-only universities could be established for students who want to study in Irish, however it should also play a role in fields specific to Irish culture including Irish literary or cultural studies.  Education should be an Irish-language field of study, but one that is accompanied by an English-language field like physics or European history (which can easily be translated).  Other areas of study that affect daily-life (i.e. law, politics, or medicine) would probably be better taught in English, but steps should be taken so that students can function fluently as a doctor or lawyer in English or Irish.
    5. Government: Local government does not need to be conducted in English.  Debates, elections, parliamentary discussions can easily be conducted in Irish as well as English, without affecting Ireland’s role internationally.  This is a matter for members of government to make the switch from English only to English and Irish though.
    6. Media:  If the Irish government wants to really increase the role of Irish, a massive public-private partnership needs to be carried out to work with media producers to start using Irish in a way that is appealing to the audience.
      1. English-language print media should be produced in both English and Irish.  The same content needs to be provided in both languages, but something different and appealing in addition to that should also be provided in Irish to make buying a National Geographic or Vogue in Irish just as good if not better than buying one in English.
      2. Radio stations (specifically those that play pop music should) switch to cool, fun, and interesting DJs who speak Irish.  To get young people to make the switch the government should subsidize the best ticket “give aways” and such for these stations (give the listeners more reasons to listen).
      3. Although I’d leave English-language TV alone (sorry, I don’t think The Simpsons or Spongebob Squarpants would ever be as good in Irish), more investment should be made in programming that doesn’t necessarily need to be in English (news programs, history shows, or children’s shows for example—an Irish language version of Sesame Street?).
      4. Advertising is probably a great area to switch from English to Irish.  It’s everywhere, and I would bet companies like Coke Cola or McDonald’s, which have already successfully branded themselves in multiple languages, would be willing to do this in partnership with the Irish government.
      5. Business:  Although I think English needs to remain an important language in Ireland I don’t think it is 100% necessary even from a business perspective that all business in Ireland to be conducted in English.  Think about all the things people use on a daily basis that is localized: pharmacies, grocery stores, or mechanics.  The government should work to encourage the use of Irish along side English in these areas.  I’m not sure how that could be done though, but the only thing that comes to mind is some sort of tax benefits or government support (initially only) for the costs of producing materials in Irish and English.

ireland100_languagesThe home would probably be the trickiest area of transition.  For generations, most of Ireland has spoken English as a first language and to get over 4 million people to suddenly change languages at home isn’t going to be easy.  Although the government can probably influence a lot of areas of life, this is the area where that influences ends.  On that front, steps can be taken to encourage the use of Irish in the home with the other steps I’ve mentioned: ad campaigns and increasing the influence and prosperity of Gaeltaechts (Irish speaking areas).  None of that is a silver bullet though.  This is why I think this language shift should be expected to be and treated as a shift that will only occur incrementally and over the course of a few generations.

Not all families should be expected to switch to Irish though.  Part of what makes Ireland really unique is the dual linguistic influence that I don’t think people see often.  Yes, countries like Belgium, Canada and South Africa are all multilingual as well, but what is definitive about Ireland is that it is a multi-lingual nation-state. The others are all multi-nation states with nations that speak different languages.  By that I mean in Switzerland for example there are people who are Italian-, German, and French-Swiss.  Although they are all Swiss, each group lives in a particular part of the country, has a particular culture and particular language.  Ireland is truly unique in that it has the potential of becoming the only truly multilingual nation-state I know of.  That is a state comprised of one nation of people that is actually culturally bilingual.

From where we are now, I can tell that the government really does seem to care about making Ireland truly bilingual, however it is going to take a lot to make that happen, but really I think it can.

PS: Some of this is influenced by things I’ve seen in Ireland, heard from Irish family and friends, and got from various sources concerning the role of Irish in Ireland today and attempts to increase the role of Irish.  I realize because of that some of the things I’ve mentioned may not be the most original of ideas, but I present them less as individual ideas, but more as a collection.  Bear with me on this though, please, if I said something that is already in the works, it’s not because I’m intending to steal ideas as my own, its more because I don’t want to dig through years of somewhat casual reading and curiosity to find specific details and also because of the fact that most of my reading is done on trains where I don’t have wifi and can’t check everything I’m thinking.