The creation of urban Gaeltachts in Belfast and other Irish cities should be regarded as one of the greatest language revitalisation projects ever undertaken. As a leading University of California linguistics professor puts it, ‘I know of no parallels to this achievement anywhere else in the world’.
The urban Irish-language movement has largely coalesced around Irish-medium schools, known as Gaelscoileanna. That’s certainly the case in Northern Ireland, where 5,000 pupils attend one of 39 Irish-medium schools. There are plenty of benefits to raising children bilingually, as a wide body of research shows. And as a briefing published by the Department of Education (Northern Ireland) illustrates, ‘academic attainment achieved by the IME [Irish medium education] schools was higher than might be expected, when set against the wider population patterns over the same period’.
My own observations of Irish-medium education in Belfast have been very positive. For four years, my wife, who grew up in California, worked at an Irish-language primary school in Belfast as an art therapist (through English), and was so impressed by the school’s care, commitment, and holistic approach to its children and families during her time there, that she now insists that our children, if we are so blessed to have any, will go there. I’ve also had the opportunity to connect with this school through my own work running parenting programmes. The quality of Irish, along with the quality of education and staff, was truly impressive, convincing me that if we move back to Belfast, this is definitely where I would want my children to do their primary-level education.
There are difficult questions that parents, educators and language activists need to address, however, regarding Irish as a second language.The public conversation about Irish in Northern Ireland has been so focused on the language’s political and perceived symbolic meanings that rarely do people, especially non-native speakers of the language, step back and ask about the state of the language itself. So intense has the conversation been on questions of identity and who the language belongs to—a necessary conversation given the history of the language over the last 100 years—that questions about the richness and capabilities of the language in a grafted, urban environment have gone largely overlooked. But these questions are of vital importance to the language . They are the questions that, if my own conversations are anything to go by, many traditional Irish speakers are asking, if not out loud, then to themselves and in private, as they work out their reservations about sending their children to Irish-medium schools in urban environments.
The traditional Irish of the Gaeltacht is dying, and the influx of learned Irish, or Irish as a second language, has caused a serious degradation to the syntax, vocabulary, pronunciation and native sounds of the language. The result is that the range of expression available to young people brought up in learned-Irish can be limited and compromised.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Dr. Diarmuid Johnson, a poet, musician, scholar and artist who has lived and worked in Ireland, Wales, and across continental Europe. Johnson, who is a native Welsh and Irish speaker, last year held the post of Bard in Residence at Rhos-y-Gilwen Mansion in Wales. Johnson, who was born in Cardiff, and raised in Connemara, is a native speaker of traditional Irish, and holds a PhD in Early Modern Irish. He’s spent his life teaching people Irish, writing in the language, and exploring the history of the language. But he wonders whether parents might compromise their children’s intellectual potential by bringing them up in a limited idiom, his description of the majority of Irish found in urban contexts.
Until recently I used to speak of native speakers and learners. This terminology is now slightly outdated. One can be a native speaker of learned Irish. One can be a native speaker of Irish as a second language. One can be a native speaker with something whose history is much, much shorter than what I call traditional Irish’.
‘By now, most Irish speakers, even in the Gaeltacht, or for many or most, their command of English is at least as good as their command of Irish. This is partly because English is so available. It’s on the radio, television, papers. The world is made up of things we say in English. And so Irish trots along behind and exists in the shadow of the language’.
‘This isn’t a recent thing, but it’s accelerated greatly. At one time there was a distinct Gaeltacht culture, until recently, and there are still the remnants of a distinct Gaeltacht culture, but most people in Ireland, wherever they may live, identify or relate to an Irish identity which includes things people talk about, the things we say about them, the way we say them, the sources of information we have, our relationship to the state and to the education system.Their is no distinct Gaeltacht way of life by now’.
The language now has more learners and urban speakers than traditional Gaeltacht speakers. In the book, Why Irish: Irish Language and Literature in Academia, edited by Brian Ó Conchubhair, Professor James McCloskey, in his article, ‘Irish as a World Language,’ associates urban Gaeltachts with what he calls ‘Second Language Communities’. He qualifies this definition, however. ‘‘There is a central sense in which this terms is inaccurate. There are now many children who have grown up in this community with a new urban version of Irish as one of their first languages, and who have passed that new language on to their own children’. Within the second language communities, like the ones we have around Belfast, there is a great range of language varieties called ‘Irish’. There are people who dedicate themselves to speak some close approximation to traditional Gaeltacht Irish, and those, probably the majority, who happily speak new urban hybrids of Irish, heavily influenced by English in every way.
This urban, pidginised Irish is having an effect on the Irish of the Gaeltacht. ‘The last five to ten years, with other colleagues, we’ve been using the word traditional Irish,’ says Johnson. ‘Now, traditional Irish, until recently, was spoken widely in the Gaeltacht areas. But in the Gaeltacht areas today, we find a mixture. We find some traditional Irish. We find some Irish spoken as a second language. And some varying degrees of competency and fluency. It’s a vary mixed community. So the word native speaker doesn’t mean what it did twenty or thirty years ago. One can be a learner and acquire traditional Irish. It’s unusual, but it’s probably not impossible. It’s a different goal to learning Irish as a second language.
The reality of the situation now is that traditional Irish ‘is on the point of being assimilated into the way Irish is spoken, taught and thought about in the rest of the country.’
‘So the idea of fluency then means different things. One can be fluent in a foreign language. Many people learn Spanish or French. And now all over the world, people learn English as a second language and speak it fluently. But they speak it as an addendum to their own native language. People in Ireland, by now, the majority of them speak Irish as an addendum to their English speaking world, or as an equal partner in that world. The idea of speaking Irish as a first language, and as a primary language, in which one speaks, learns and develops is becoming very, very rare.
For those of us who are learning Irish with the goal of becoming part of the Irish-speaking community, and who want our children to have Irish, we need to address where we will get our Irish from. For learners, says Johnson, ‘the question is what the source of their Irish may be. It has to come from somewhere. Where will Irish be found in the future? Until recently the Gaeltacht was the source of Irish.’
For Johnson, the source needs to be the traditional Irish spoken in the Gaeltacht. ‘If you’re learning French, you have your source. It might be Quebec, it might be France, it might be Northern Africa. If you’re learning Portuguese, it might be Brazil, it might be Portugal. Each language has a source. So if people use the Gaeltacht as a source then the continuity can be assured. All you need to learn a language is two or three good speakers. So you can find them in places all over the Gaeltacht in Ireland if you want to’.
The problem is one of supply. ’The supply of Irish in the Gaeltacht is not enough to answer the demand. In simple terms, if you have a thousand schools in Ireland where Irish is spoken, you won’t have a thousand young teachers coming from the Gaeltacht. The pool is now too small. It’s become too small. What is the source of Irish. So if people whose first language is something else, English for example, decide to switch languages, they should ask themselves what the source is, where they’re getting it’.
‘Otherwise, the result is an offshoot, or something distinct from the source. If this occurs, then it’s it not so much a question of validity, all speech variants are valid, but raising children in a compromised idiom, introduces a compromise in the resources of expression. So if you raise a child in English or French or German, a majority language, there is no issue of compromise of expression. They can read the history of the world, the history of science and art, philosophy, in their own language. With a post-traditional language you simply don’t have these resources. So the question then is how, in what way are you compromising your children by bringing them up in a limited idiom. For me that’s a major question’.
‘I brought up my children speaking traditional Irish. But that was twenty years ago. And I’m not quite sure how I could do it now. In other words, people can speak Irish, and we talk a lot about the number of speakers, but what I often mention is the discourse, or abstract thought, you know… The ability to make distinctions, which obviously is a question of vocabulary, or partly of vocabulary. So for a child, or for the children of a community to develop fully, intellectually, they must be speaking a non-compromised idiom. Here we’ve arrived at a point of conflict. The conflict is between the potential of the young person and the resources the language gives you’.
‘So the two best things I ever did was one, bring my children up in the Gaeltacht. And two, get them out of there. So they went to secondary school in France. Which means that they still speak traditional Irish, because it hasn’t been corrupted by the post-traditional idiom, but their best language is French’.
The best improvement the Irish-medium sector could introduce, argues Johnson, would be immersion in a third language. ‘If you introduce a third language, perhaps a European language in our case, the tensions are different, you have a triangle. It would be much better for the children’.
In terms of raising children in an Irish-medium school in the current context , Johnson isn’t sure. ‘I’m not sure if I would raise my children now in an environment like that now. I just don’t know. And I’m glad they didn’t go to secondary school in the Gaeltacht. It would have compromised their intellectual development. And I’m glad they didn’t go to an Irish-speaking school in an urban environment. That would have compromised their intellectual development’.
‘My oldest daughter is dong a PhD in nuclear physics in Paris now. She’s a native Irish speaker. But she wouldn’t have got there by going through Gaeltacht secondary school. My younger daughter is finishing a Master’s in translation, French, German and English in France at the moment. She might have got there by going through the Irish education system. But she probably would have been a victim of the dualism Irish/English. Because the climate at the moment in Ireland isn’t pro-European. And this isn’t a particularly good thing for Ireland or Irish, because we’re returning to an older view of things. That there were two languages. This dualism again’.
There will be many who argue Johnson’s purism about the language is misplaced. The learned Irish of urban speakers still allows them to engage Irish-language media, provides an entry point into Irish literature, and could very well facilitate, if given the right kind of guidance, a better relationship between the Gaeltacht (if it survives) and urban areas. What we have in Belfast, in terms of language revival, is probably as good as it gets, and other minority language activists can learn a lot from the Belfast experience. The hybrid, urban, pidginised and creolised Irish of Belfast, Dublin, Derry and other cities across Ireland is probably the future of the language, and it likely means a new chapter in the history of the language. As McCloskey argues, ‘You probably cannot “revive” a seriously weakened language.’ Regarding post-traditional Irish, he argues, ‘We need not be alarmed or put off by these developments, for, if current research is on the right track, creolisation is a true and bare reflection of the human language faculty, and is therefore the furnace in which new languages will be formed’. In the meantime, parents and educators need to seriously think about the source of Irish in Irish-medium education, and whether Irish-medium education, in its current form, offers children the best possible resources to fully develop intellectually and emotionally. I’ll look forward to hearing the responses from people who work in Irish Medium Education as well as from urban language activists.