Why can’t we speak our native language?

As Leaving Certificate students prepare for their oral Irish tests this week and teachers meet for annual conferences, Colman Garrihy says our inability to speak our native language merits scrutiny

IF you chat to teenagers and, indeed, to adults, about their proficiency in Irish, it’s likely that a great many will laugh at you.

Why is it that we start learning our native language aged five and continue for another 13 years, yet we become more proficient in languages such as German and French, which we learned in secondary school?

The last census, in 2011, revealed that 30% of 15-19-year-olds, 54% of 20-24-year-olds and 63% of 25-29-year-olds did not speak the language, despite it being compulsory in primary and second school.

Why, and could lack of language competency by primary teachers be contributing to this trend?

A 2006 report by Dr John Harris, of Trinity College, Dublin, revealed that 25% of primary teachers classified themselves as ‘weak’ Irish speakers.

Dr Muiris Ó Laoire, a senior lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Technology Tralee, has written extensively on bilingualism and multilingualism.

“How one acquires Irish to a competent level is much the same as any other language. It’s down to how people interact with other speakers and make an effort to speak and use it more meaningfully,” he says.

“Learning Irish to pass an exam, or get a job, involves short-term learning. Many learn for good cultural reasons, but culture, in itself, is not a strong motivator; it’s not the same as learning to communicate and to mix with people who use it,” says Dr Ó Laoire.

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So is our interest in conversing ‘as Gaeilge’ stymied because it is not a necessary skill to get a job in Europe or to travel around South America, like French and Spanish are?

Primary school is crucial, Dr Ó Laoire says, as it gives pupils a foundation in Irish and determines their long-term attitude to it.

“Students often mention the positive influence of Irish teachers. However, it’s difficult for some teachers to operate the communicative approach, if the correct support structures are not in place.

“They are supposed to have children doing group work and have pre-prepared tasks and instructions, plus competency in the language,” Dr Ó Laoire says.

Teaching Irish can be sterile, if teaching isn’t geared towards meaningful use, and the formulaic exam-and-teacher-centred approach undermines learning for the sake of communication, says Dr Ó Laoire.

READ MORE: Quiz: How well do you remember your primary school Irish?

Seán de Brún, head of the department of language, literacy, and mathematics education at Mary Immaculate College, in Limerick, agrees.

Mr de Brún, a senior lecturer in Gaeilge and Múineadh na Gaeilge, provides tuition and support for trainee primary teachers of Irish. He develops national initiatives in this field, with his lecturer colleague, Martina Ní Fhátharta.

“Various reports indicate that the school system hasn’t achieved what it would like to achieve in getting pupils to be proficient and have recommended remedial action,” Mr de Brún says.

“Among the most important factors in the teaching and learning of Irish in the primary school are the teacher’s competence and knowledge,” he says. “This includes both knowledge of the language and methodologies to teach the language.”

Mr de Brún says Ireland has the best primary teachers, but doesn’t have the best teachers of Irish. “This is not a reflection on the teachers, but on the system that produced them,” he says.

A structured, guided programme for teachers is critical to teaching any subject, says Mr de Brún. “Previously, you had a programme called Buntús Gaeilge where, at least, teachers knew what was to be taught. Now, you have different programmes being used, with less success.”

Mr de Brún points to the State’s heavy investment in a uniform programme for the teaching of Irish in Gaeltacht schools and Gaelscoileanna. It caters for 10% of the language student population.

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“Teachers and pupils in the remaining 90% in English-medium schools deserve a similar programme,” he says.

In response, de Brún and Ní Fhátharta are bridging this gap by developing an interactive online programme for teachers and pupils. ‘Bua na Cainte’ comprises over 670 activities, 250 conversations, 120 songs and rhymes and 26 stories in attractive, animated, fun form, to foster everyday use of Irish in schools and homes.

“This provides teachers with course materials relating to the Irish language syllabus,” says Mr de Brún. The programme will be available up to second class for the coming academic year and be rolled out subsequently to all primary-school classes.

Other initiatives, suggested by Mr de Brún, to better equip Irish teachers include upskilling throughout the academic year, instead of short, voluntary summer courses, and more self-assessment by schools of individual teacher needs.

With 50 years experience of primary teaching and tutoring teachers, Úna Uí Rócháin, from Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, has also developed a complementary resource for teachers. It’s called ‘Ar Scáth a Chéile’. This workbook includes poems, music, illustrations, activities and two CDs.

As regards use of Irish in society, Dr Ó Laoire points to a growing network of Irish-medium schools which, although scattered, could stimulate local community networks.

He says technology advances have led to a flourishing online Irish-speaking community, as is the case with the Welsh and Maori minority languages (he has worked as professor with the latter community).

“It’s a big challenge for all countries, including Ireland, to normalise minority languages. There are now almost as many Irish-speakers outside the Gaeltacht as inside it and I believe there’s a need to actively plan for its use across Irish society, in public services, the media and commercial life, in the same way as there is a plan to ensure it survives in the Gaeltacht”, he says.

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