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Go hiontach or just ceart go leor?: Saving the Irish language and the bilingual society… December 23, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Ireland.

Thanks, FL, but keep posting, anyhow this is the second last post before Christmas!

I was at a conference in April which dealt with the changing nature of Irish society and how that impacts on the public space. The issue of language and how that was to be tackled in a multicultural society came up, and there were various ideas thrown about as to how to integrate Polish and such like into state produced material and signage, how the use of two languages (or more) would have cost and other implications and how the necessity for bilingual solutions was a very real worry.

You can probably imagine that it was with a degree of trepidation that I raised my paw and pointed out that as far as I was aware we already a bilingual society, so at worst this was merely an extension of that process…

So, it’s no real surprise that there was both good and bad news on the Irish language front as reported in the Irish Times during the week. The good news is that the government has revealed a plan to create a ‘bilingual society’ over the next 20 years. The bad news is that it’s unlikely to succeed in the way they intend and I think that that is a pity.

In any event, here are some of the objectives,

* Full implementation of the Official Languages Act and facilitation of the public’s right to use Irish in dealings with the State.
* Provision of a wide range of services to parents who wish to raise their children through Irish.
* Continuous development of high-quality broadcast services through Irish, especially on TG4, RTÉ and Raidió na Gaeltachta.
* Special support for the Gaeltacht as an Irish-speaking area.
* Continuation of teaching of Irish as an obligatory subject from primary to Leaving Cert level while fostering oral and written competence.
* Enhanced investment in professional development and ongoing support for teachers as well as in provision of textbooks and resources and in support for innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
* Further development of all-Irish secondary education.

Now this very day I had the opportunity to actually read the plan issued by the Government (and if you like it’s available in pdf format here. And very fine and shiny it is too with enormously large type to conceal the fact that… these appear to be simply a shopping list of objectives. The words ‘continue’ ‘encourage’ and so on are used throughout. As a coherent means of introducing a truly bilingual society they seem entirely inadequate. In part the problem is that there is no clear route to reestablishing a language easily in an advanced capitalist state. Political and public pressure will always mitigate against the more hard edged policies (note the concern over the status of Irish as a compulsory language in Second Level education). And whatever cultural nostalgists say, there never was. I remember a couple of years ago, in the course of some research, I found an internal document from the Department of Finance released in 1932 where funding for Gaelic typeface typewriters was refused on the grounds of cost (circular No. 15/32. Department of Finance, 18 April 1932, 29/12, (National Archives) seeing as you asked). Now, one can make an argument that there were higher societal priorities during that period than the re-introduction of the language, and yet that document seemed to me to say it all. Lash on the rhetoric about the Irish language but make no particular effort to support it by actions. Thankfully we’ve moved into more enlightened times, and it’s one of the truly rewarding aspects of computer technology that – for example – my Apple can utilise Irish language inputs through the keyboard. A small, but significant step forward.

And it’s been these small but significant steps which seem to have given Irish a degree of critical mass entirely lacking in former years.

I think funding for TG4 etc has been extremely positive. There has, to some degree, been a virtuous cycle whereby Gaeilscoileanna are increasing in popularity which again is no bad thing. And thankfully many of the sour arguments of the 1980s such as ‘what is Irish for?’ have been diluted by increasing prosperity and a recognition that it’s not an either/or situation, that in this society and economy funding is available for both and that a pluralistic approach is both feasible and appropriate.

However, being pessimistic I’d tend to think the Gaeltacht areas as specific geographical entities are probably bound to diminish yet further – the crushing disparity in the statistic that 43% of the population are able to speak the language while only 3% use it as their daily means of communication is a sign of the problem. However, this isn’t by any means the end of the language. New social and cultural networks (of which interestingly the web is a significant aspect) can step into the breach. And the plan has one great redeeming feature. It speaks of a bilingual rather than a monolingual society, which while a retreat on one level is entirely pragmatic on another. This is achievable.

But lists of objectives, while a necessary first step are not enough. A strategic plan with clear goals and means to implement them would be a better start. Nach bhfuil..?

Late addition: go to here and check it out. Doesn’t surprise me, but it puts the above in even more stark perspective.


1. Pidge - December 24, 2006

I would have thought it difficult for even a powerful state to set the means by which people communicate in their day to day lives. Provision of state services in Irish doesn’t serve much of a purpose in itself, unless people are speaking Irish in the first place.

I would, for example, be interested to see the statistics for people taking up the facility to access EU documents in Irish.

And before anyone says it, yes, I know that by translating documents into Irish the state sends a signal etc etc, but surely that’s just an extension of the useless rhetoric WBS mentioned.


2. WorldbyStorm - December 24, 2006

Again it comes back to the issue as to whether the state enables rather than proscribes. I favour the former, particularly because I think that advanced societies like our own allow for a multiplicity of channels of meaning, one of which I would hope would be the Irish language.

I agree, I think the take up issue is interesting, but it’s not necessarily the only determinant. Simply put, establish a framework but allow people the option of opting in or out.

Incidentally, I can speak it okayish in a fairly colloquial way, but I’m not really any good at reading it.


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