Shalini Sinha on the importance of the Irish Language

I was nearing the end of an epic post on Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’s proposal to end compulsory Irish education for Leaving Certificate students in the Republic (subs req), linking to a load of media coverage and commentary, but managed to lose it all when the auld PC crashed.
In hindsight, this may have been a good thing, for otherwise this brilliant and passionate piece from Shalini Sinha (subs req) in the Irish Times Health Supplement last week would have been buried in the middle of it and perhaps missed by most of you. Shalini was born and raised in Canada to Indian parents, and is a TV presenter with RT� in addition to her weekly columns in the I.T. and Metro �ireann. Her immigrant viewpoint on the Irish language and its importance gives this piece a freshness that has been lacking in much of the debate on the language over the years.

Communicating with each other is one of the most significant activities humans engage in. We use language to share technology, progress and form relationships with each other. We need it to survive.

In particular, our own language is specifically valuable.

The language of our people has been designed and developed to communicate our experience and view of the world.

It is a unique recording of a way of life, philosophy and set of relationships. We may learn the languages of other people (sometimes forced) but it never replaces our story – the insight into who we are and why we do things as we do.

I grew up speaking Hindi. It was my first language. While not the one I use most or arguably am most proficient in, it means the world to me to be born and raised in the diaspora and still a Hindi speaker.

My language connects me with my people, our philosophies and ways of thinking.

I grew up knowing that language has little to do with economic value, and everything to do with identity and closeness.

Thus, one of the first things I did when I moved to Ireland was begin the journey of learning Irish – not because I thought it would be easy or was “fascinated”, but because I felt that this was the only way I would really understand the country that was now my home, and the people who would love me here.

Although most of you won’t speak it, this is still true.

(…)

Irish people can speak Irish. Regardless of how inadequate we may feel when we do, or badly we felt when we were learning, anyone who did it through school truly has a decent enough level of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation to make it a living experience.

We see this while abroad on holidays. This is when Irish people turn to speaking Irish, and discover we can find the words we want. More so, we want to. And so it is possible to bring it into our lived culture at home.

Let us speak in Irish with each other. If it must be as a second language, let it be so to bring it to life.

(…)

For our immigrants who didn’t learn Irish in school, let’s not make our language a means of excluding people but offer the supports to learn it in our communities and workplaces.

Those of us coming from African or Asian countries already typically have three or four before arriving.

Being required to learn this one will not hold us back and is quite feasible. But, do not demand it of us until you choose to speak it yourself, for we can bring enthusiasm and ability, but we cannot make you have pride.

In the aftermath of controversy surrounding Kenny’s proposal, a consensus seems to have emerged that the way the Irish language is taught in schools needs to be changed radically as it is not working. Opinion is very much divided however on whether dropping Irish as a compulsory subject for the Leaving Certificate might also be a positive step. My own viewpoint is that, like a good mechanic trying to solve a problem, one thing should be adjusted at a time so that the effect of each change can be assessed.

More significantly, if all students were taught a course on Language Awareness (perhaps during their Transition Year), covering the arguments in favour of saving minority languages from extinction and emphasising what they have to offer to society (as Shalini Sinha has), much of the hostility towards the language would dissipate and students would appreciate learning Irish much more.

As for the sometimes politically divisive issue of Irish language learning in Northern Ireland, that�s a blog for another day…