“Irish is a dead language”
“No one speaks it”
“The teacher was rubbish”
“What a pointless subject”
“Irish is elitist”
These are some of the common phrases ingrained in the psyche of the typical Irish man or woman as they contemplate their collective experiences of the Irish language and attempt to answer the question: “Why, after 12 years of studying Irish at school can I not speak it?” They all have one common theme: they are all excuses! And excuses projected externally.
There is one reason and one reason alone for my inability to speak Irish –I didn’t learn it. That being said I didn’t know how “to learn” a language when I was at school age and am sure I was never instructed in language learning techniques beyond what seemed like arbitrary written homework or memorising poetry of words I didn’t understand. It was only 8 years after finishing school and starting a degree as a mature student that I learned what it takes to learn a language: quality instruction met with high intrinsic motivation. The two are inseparable, with good quality instruction and no motivation you won’t learn a language nor will you with all the motivation in the world and poor quality instruction. In my youth I believe I had neither motivation nor high quality instruction when it came to Irish.
Now, having spent years learning French and Spanish to a high level I think there has never been a better time to tackle the beast which has eluded me for so long. I see it as a challenge, a way of proving to myself that it can be done, to expand my linguistic knowledge and put my metholodology to the test. I recognise that it won’t be easy for several reasons: firstly, the thing that few people ever mention in their excuses is: Irish is bloody difficult! Something we touched on in my class tonight which I had long forgotten about: Irish has 3 counting systems; the numbers themselves, counting things and counting people all have different forms. And depending on whether the number has a consonant or not can also affect the spelling and pronunciation of the thing you’re counting! This wikihow article explains it better than I can: https://www.wikihow.com/Count-to-10-in-Irish
Asides from it being linguistically challenging, one would think it difficult to find Irish speakers to practice with, particularly outside of Ireland. However, here in Manchester there are a number of 2nd generation Irish in the Language group I attend who are native speakers –it’s quite interesting to hear someone speak to you in a strong Manchester accent and then turn to speak in Irish to the person beside them and sound like they’re from Connemara. I spoke with one of these men who told me of the shame attached with being a native Irish speaker and it being a marker of the “stupid immigrant” and his reluctance to speak the language. This story I’m sure is not isolated and highlights some of negativity attached to the language, sometimes from within native speaking communities. It’s far removed from the elitism and resentment people feel when hearing a politician with a Dublin4 accent speak “Oirish”.
I feel, perhaps unjustifiably, that it may be challenging at times to find content such as film and TV that I would find as engaging as what’s out there in other languages but I’m willing to keep an open mind. Having said that, I have one weapon in the battle to learn Irish that I didn’t the first time round: the internet! Daily immersion in a language of your choosing is now possible for several hours per day if you so wish: podcasts, newspapers, language apps etc are all easily accessible: I’m currently enrolled in a free online course run by DCU which can be found here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/irish-language
When I’m at home I never necessarily feel “Irish” but while abroad those seemingly arbitrary collective experiences that define us as “Irish” are magnified; a turn of phrase or a joke will be misunderstood and it reminds you that you’re a foreigner. So I think my final motivation for learning Irish is to create more collective experiences, to celebrate the things that make us who we are and connect with others on the same language learning journey.
In my next few posts, I’ll try to include a phrase of the week!
Slán go fóill !
(/Slawn -guh- foal/ Goodbye for now !)