One of the interesting and revealing comments about the Irish language on social media recently was an Irishman complaining about the waste of time involved in learning Irish: I help my daughter with her Irish homework, that she knows is pointless in life at age 9 & it’s so frustrating knowing her time could be spent better learning things she’ll need in the future. I wasted time on Irish and finished school unable to boil an egg.. I need hardly say that this man was slagged off mercilessly for his comment (especially the non-sequitur about egg-boiling), but it got me thinking about this kind of person and this kind of attitude.
Firstly, didn’t everyone learn things in school that they have never used? I certainly did. Quadratic equations? Physics? I am also quite sure I have never used any of the content or information I acquired in history lessons for any practical purpose, though my life would be greatly impoverished without a knowledge of history.
However, learning subjects at school is not only about acquiring facts and information, is it? For most of us, we take our school subjects far enough to acquire a piece of paper, and then we move on and do something else. We have the piece of paper which proves that we have the ability to acquire the piece of paper. And that entitles us to go for a higher level and a more specialised piece of paper. There are subjects I did at school which I have never taken any further but I have the qualification. It wasn’t a waste of my time. It was a part of my education, pure and simple.
And when I look back at the subjects I studied at school, there were some I liked and some I didn’t, but I don’t remember ever saying at age 9 (or even age 12 or 14) that certain subjects shouldn’t be taught because they’re useless. Which makes me wonder whether a child of nine actually made a judgement like that on her own. Or was it the parent who left school an idiot who made sure she knew exactly what to think?
Then again, there are other skills involved in learning subjects. There is learning how to study, how to manage time, how to take notes, how to find sources of information and evaluate them and exploit them properly. There is the ability to memorise things. And above all, there is developing confidence. Similar skills are involved in learning a language – any language. There are transferable skills involved in learning anything.
Ignorant people like the man who couldn’t boil an egg will assume that learning a language like Irish won’t help you to learn another language. However, there is a lot of evidence that learning a second language to a high level will make learning a third or a fourth language easier. The greatest barrier to learning a language is the assumptions you acquire from your first language. If you can break those assumptions, that is half the battle. The fact is, the man who can’t boil an egg doesn’t know what languages his daughter might need in her life. Azeri, Russian, Indonesian? You can’t predict that, but you can teach her a language which is quite unlike English and which will make it easier to learn Language 3 or Language 4. However, he’d rather screw up her education because of his own childish prejudices.
The fact is, languages all over the world use a limited range of sounds, structures and strategies to describe the world. Arabic and Hebrew use structures like liom, agat, astu in Irish. A huge number of languages use the sound of Spanish j or Irish ch, which many English speakers can’t pronounce at all. Polynesian languages use the concept of location for possession, so the thing possessed is ‘at’ you, just as it is in Irish or Welsh. I could give hundreds of other examples. Learning any language will help you to learn other languages in a multitude of practical, specific ways.
So there are lots of reasons for learning Irish properly. Even if you do think that Irish itself is a waste of time as a language, there are still good reasons to encourage your children to learn it properly. However, if you teach children that Irish is a waste of time, it will be, both for them and for other children who are forced to share a classroom with kids who have already been encouraged to give up on the subject.
And that’s not even taking into account all the positive cultural reasons for learning Irish. There are currently nearly 4 million people learning Irish through Duolingo – far more than are learning Hebrew, or Turkish, or Norwegian. Why do so many people want to learn Irish? The fact is that it puts you in touch with your own past. Most place names or personal names in Ireland are Irish. There is a whole literature which is very different from that found in English. And so much Irish music is linked to the language.
Also, without going too far down the road of politics, Irish has been brought to the brink of extinction by a campaign of linguistic genocide. Basically, the mentality of those who tried to destroy it is akin to racism. These attitudes are also similar to the notion that ‘wasteful’ rainforests full of colourful but useless species should be replaced with ordered plantations full of banana or rubber trees. If we allow bigots and racists to win on Irish, how long before languages like Dutch or Danish or Czech are endangered because people think their smallness means they are not viable anymore?