Speaking up for new ways to learn the Irish language

Sean Gréif learned Portuguese on the hoof while living with a remote Brazilian tribe.

Meet the man taking Irish out of the classroom and into the great outdoors. Could this be the key to teaching our kids our native tongue? Helen O’Callaghan reports

When you’re fishing in the Amazon with a Portuguese-speaking tribe, you quickly learn the names of the fish about to be hauled into your canoe. A piranha can bite two hours out of the water.

Seán Gréif, from Dun Laoghaire, knows more fish, trees, fruit, and mosquito names in Portuguese than he does in English.

“I have six different words for mosquito: the one with the feathery antenna, and others you can tell from their bites. Some leave a red welt, others a red dot in the middle of the bite. You learn very quickly the names for ants that you run from.”

Gréif learned names of fish whose venomous spikes have to be cut from their dorsal and side fins, before they can be brought aboard the canoe.

“Because certain spikes have a hook and, if they get into you, the only way to get them out is to push them; you won’t be able to pull them out.”

Living six months with the remote indigenous Apurinã tribe, in the Brazilian rainforest, Gréif learned Portuguese by fishing, hunting, and gathering fruit in the jungle with the tribe. He had no teacher, classroom or books, but, after six months, knew Portuguese as well as he does Irish.

Next, Gréif spent five months as a glacier and mountain guide in Argentine Patagonia, where he learned Spanish.

“My only rule was I wouldn’t accept any job that was based in English. Everything had to be Spanish language-oriented. That meant starting off very simply, as a mountain porter bringing 20kg from the bottom of the mountain to the top for tourists.”

Going up the mountain with a gang of Argentine porters, his Spanish developed. He graduated to camp cook, and serving food to people expanded his vocabulary.

“I progressed to mountain guide and my last job was on the glaciers, serving Bailey’s with freshly chipped-off pieces of glacier ice.”

Having quickly learned Portuguese and Spanish, Gréif wondered why it had taken him so much longer to learn Irish, the language into which he’d put the most energy over 20 years.

Many people bemoan their mediocre ability in Irish, despite years of studying it at school. Some parents want exemptions for their children from having to learn Irish. These children learn other languages, but not Irish.

“We spend 12 years of our life at school learning Irish: 40 minutes a day, five days a week, nine months a year. If it was any other skill — carpentry, piano, tennis — you’d expect to be fairly competent after that much input. It shows a difficulty in our relationship with the Irish language,” says Gréif, who always enjoyed Irish and was academically good at it.

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Up to the age of eight, he attended all-Irish Scoil Lorcáin. He had an excellent teacher in secondary school, but it wasn’t until studying Irish at UCD that he became confident in speaking it.

“At college, I had the social experience of friendships through Irish, going to music events in Irish, weekends in the Gaeltacht.”

Greif was a teacher before he headed off to live with remote tribes. Survival is a wonderful motivator for learning quickly, but once back in Ireland, he started analysing the elements of language-learning that had enabled him to become fluent so quickly in Spanish and Portuguese.

Gréif believes that when people talk about the ‘problem’ with Irish in schools, they habitually look for one solution, blaming the teacher or ‘the way the language is taught’.

We’re looking for one solution, but we don’t have that, because there isn’t one type of learner. In a class of 30, each student has their own unique personality, their own unique approach to learning, yet we’re teaching them the same way. It doesn’t make sense.

“We have to accept that people learn differently: some want to see it written down, others want to hear themselves say it before they can remember it. We’re presenting a one-size-fits-all Irish language curriculum, which might suit 20% of the class, but won’t suit everyone.”

Gréif doesn’t want to throw out traditional ways of language-learning – the textbooks, grammar rules.

“In the Amazon, with the help of a textbook, I could have surpassed by about five weeks getting my head around tenses or the irregular verbs. If I’d had a cheat sheet of notes, I’d have been much faster. There’s a place for grammar and textbooks, but it’s about integrating these with a variety of solutions into a broader approach to language-learning.”

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In May, Gréif begins his fifth season offering Moontour courses, which teach Irish through adventure.

Dun Laoghaire-based, the Irish-language adventure centre runs Irish-language school tours and summer courses and has won an EU award for ‘innovative language teaching’.

Tenses and verbs are taught through yoga, conversational skills through water-sports, written composition through photography, and listening skills through DJ-ing.

Specially created Moontour activities include kayak hurling, surf rugby, and kayak hungry hippos (great for teaching colours and numeracy).

“Students learn Irish up to five times more efficiently than in the traditional academic setting,” says Gréif, whose students hail mainly from south Dublin, but also from Galway and Mayo Gaeltachts.

“So, an Irish-language stronghold doesn’t have to be rural and remote; it could be urban and on the east coast.”

Moontour’s online offering allows students to learn/practice Irish through interactive videos and virtual reality in a variety of situations/adventures. Each adventure has a wide range of useful vocabulary, phrases, and real-life situations, helping students build confidence in speaking Irish.

Gréif has teamed up with authors from Folens publishers to create Gaeilge ABÚ!, an Irish book for Junior Cycle.

It launches in March and will be in shops in July. It brings a fresh perspective to learning Irish and will engage students through resources on Moontour’s website.


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