Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Drastic steps needed to save native-spoken Irish

Drastic steps needed to save native-spoken Irish

CONCHÚR Ó GIOLLAGÁIN and BRIAN Ó CURNÁIN - Tue, Dec 29, 2009 – Irish Times

OPINION: The Irish language needs to be promoted in ways that differentiate between native speakers and others

LAST MONTH the Government published its draft 20-year strategy for the Irish language, 2010-2030. The constructive nature of many of its recommendations is to be welcomed. The positive aspects of the draft are particularly significant given current economic circumstances and the threatened withdrawal of support schemes for the language, recommended by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes – “Bord Snip Nua”.

The invitation to engage in a quasi-consultative process towards the final draft marks a positive departure. Equally, the Government strategy affirms the support of the majority language community for planning initiatives on behalf of the minority language, an essential component of effective language planning in any minority context. Having recognised the limitations of previous policies, the renewed commitment of the Government to Irish is to be commended.

The most immediate priority according to all available evidence is the linguistic crisis of the contemporary Gaeltacht. The draft accepts the troubling sociolinguistic conclusions and the rescue strategy presented in the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (2007).

Two important issues, although neglected in the draft, are worthy of further discussion: unidirectional bilingualism (ie bilingualism of native Irish speakers, monolingualism of native English speakers) in the Gaeltacht, and the failure to distinguish between the diverse needs of two distinct speech communities – ie speakers of Irish as a first language on the one hand, and learners or speakers of Irish as a second language on the other. This re-examination of the draft’s philosophy may assist in the formulation of the definitive plan.

The draft includes many references to the positive aspects of bilingualism inside and outside the Gaeltacht. However, this appraisal of bilingual practice does not address the clear evidence, demonstrated both nationally and internationally, of a correlation between social bilingualism in minority language contexts and the erosion of minority languages. Minority-language speakers are bilingual because their acquisition of the majority language is compulsory and unidirectional. This is because majority-language speakers only acquire bilingual competence as a matter of choice.

It is clear that a bilingual capacity is a positive personal asset. On the other hand, the promotion of bilingualism will erode the social use of Irish in the minority Gaeltacht community. Bilingual social practice is inherently problematic and disadvantageous for the minority language.

It is vital that the policy engages with the social dynamics governing the relations between the English-speaking majority and the Irish-language minority. Otherwise, elements of the strategy will be reduced to a post-Gaeltacht planning scenario.

The draft refers to the current crisis threatening global linguistic and cultural diversity. The draft appositely highlights Unesco’s evidence that minority languages and cultures are facing extinction at a faster rate than ever, yet it does not address the basic reasons or dynamics driving this loss.

What global transformation has occurred to bring about this ongoing worldwide loss of cultural diversity? A main determinant is in fact the sociological spread of unidirectional bilingualism. The draft, however, suggests bilingualism as the solution, when it has been scientifically indicted by linguists for generating pervasive language death.

Research and documentation of language death have repeatedly highlighted weak language acquisition processes and limited ability in minority languages (in comparison to high proficiency in the majority language) – we need look no further than Nancy C Dorian’s innovative portrayal of the death of Gaelic in northeast Scotland in the 1980s.

We have evidence of clear parallels currently in the Gaeltacht, where two native speakers of Irish face almost insurmountable difficulties in raising their children as competent native speakers. This should be a cause of profound concern. In such a context, unidirectional bilingualism is simply a misguided rescue strategy.

One aspect of the confused advice in the draft’s approach to bilingualism is the conflation of native speaker and learner contexts. Approaches which suit the learner community are inappropriate for native speakers. For the native speaker it is necessary to stress the importance of rich and varied home acquisition of the language, social and academic reinforcement in the context of formal education, and its holistic integration into communal practice.

Acquisition for learners, on the other hand, primarily requires the support of educational institutions, supported where possible by their integration into certain local or other networks. Clarity in educational policy is a prerequisite for proactive State support of minority language speakers in the Gaeltacht.

Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge (SLG - support scheme for Irish-speaking families in the Gaeltacht) was one of the first measures implemented in support of the Gaeltacht. It indicates recognition for the efforts of Irish-speaking parents to preserve Irish in the Gaeltacht, and their contribution to the founding vision of the nation.

The draft lays significant emphasis on the importance of language planning for the Gaeltacht and networks of speakers nationally. Without the SLG, it will be impossible to distinguish between language planning initiatives for native speakers as distinct from learners. In that case, the strategy may well increase the total number of speakers (ie learners), while conversely failing the Gaeltacht by not arresting the precipitous fall in the number of native speakers.

In a crisis it is always necessary to address priorities: the kernel of the crisis in the Gaeltacht is the low number of young native speakers. We therefore strongly advise, as a matter of urgency, that priority be given to revising and strengthening SLG, as recommended in the Comprehensive Linguistic Study . This would send an immediate message as well as an injection of key supports where they are most required.

The SLG is the only targeted mechanism the State has to increase the number of young native speakers, which is the starting point of all language planning initiatives. Discussions concerning the title, functions and administrative boundaries of Gaeltacht agencies may soon become irrelevant if there is no speech community for them to serve.

To put it bluntly, the learner community cannot have it both ways. That is to say, it cannot both use the native-speaking community as an acquisition resource and then fail to provide the language planning supports necessary for the continuation of Irish as a community language. As a corollary, unless Irish is revitalised in the younger generation, is it reasonable for the Gaeltacht community to expect the Government to maintain the status quo of their support structures, while the State endeavours to function in a “Gaeltacht” that has succumbed to language shift?

We seek to enhance the positive political nature of the draft by recommending the incorporation of sociolinguistic insights into the final draft. The main danger of the current draft strategy is its strong potential to camouflage the transformation of Irish native-speaking communities into a community of learners of Irish. Given that English predominates as the social language of the younger generation in almost every Gaeltacht district, in the first instance a renewal process or a language revival is required among the young.

There is no doubt that this is a daunting task, given that relatively few communities have succeeded in reversing the trend to English monolingualism during more than 100 years of language revival. But realistic language planning as suggested here will increase the capacity of the strategy to achieve its stated aims, and foster support among the public as a result.


As a speaker and very strong supporter of Irish who has a home in the Connemara Gaeltacht, I feel that whatever measures are needed to preserve the Irish language should be taken. The Irish Constitution, very rightfully, recognizes the native tongue as the first language of the country and therefore it should be taught, learned, and supported regardless of cost. It would be unrealistic to think that children growing up in Ireland today would be proficient only in their own tongue. They must also be prepared to function in a world that conducts their business in other languages ie. English, French, & Spanish. However, I believe that it is absolutely essential for any nation, Ireland included, to preserve their national identity by encouraging the use of their own native language on a daily basis. Tir gan Teanga, Tir gan Anam!

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