Preserving Irish must go beyond the education system

Cultures are built on languages, and learning a new language opens doors to new cultures. Ola Majekodunmi was born in Nigeria but immigrated to Ireland with her family at a young age. She relates how glad she is that her family enrolled her in a Gaelscoil despite the resistance that many people of colour face when learning Irish. She now puts her education to work toward preserving Irish — a language that is considered endangered — by hosting a program on Raidió na Life.

Now, as a lifelong resident of white suburban America, I wouldn’t exactly be able to relate to the resistance she and other people of colour meet in learning Irish or in many other aspects of life. However, her story does remind me of my unique experience as a Spanish learner and speaker.

Dreaming in tongues

I’ll never forget the first time I dreamed in Spanish. Now, my dreams tend to be strange. In this one, I had to ask a Spanish-speaking militia leader to grant my friends and I our freedom. (Casual dream stuff, right?) I only spoke limited Spanish, so the conversation was brief. But I thought twice about the dream once I woke up. Although I was uncertain of my own ability, the other man’s responses en español were perfectly coherent. And if this whole scenario only existed in my head, then I had just been speaking Spanish with myself the whole time! It would seem that I was more comfortable with Spanish than I thought.

What makes this more impressive (if I may brag a little) is the fact that most of my Spanish has been learned in classes. No one in my family speaks Spanish; in fact, I’ve never spoken anything but English at home. I don’t shop anywhere that doesn’t speak English. These Spanish classes weren’t immersive, either. And yet, somehow, I was almost fluent by the time I graduated.

A personal interest

Good ol’ FIFA. Photo by Jeshoots.com/Unsplash

I say all of this because I expect myself to be in the minority. I am not aware of many others who have taken the personal initiative to take a language with them outside of the classroom. None of my classmates shared experiences of dreaming in Spanish. I didn’t know anyone else who would set the commentary language to Spanish when they played FIFA. Granted, growing up in the States, I didn’t know many who played FIFA in the first place. To be honest, I actually think that my interest in football has played a positive part in broadening my worldview in a way that many of my fellow Americans miss out on. I imagine that this has helped make language-learning more attractive to me. In any event, I took Spanish classes, and the language stuck in a way that it didn’t seem to do for most of my peers.

Aging out?

Irish speakers by age and gender, according to the 2016 census

And if my experience with learning Spanish is unique, then I don’t think we can entrust the task of preserving the Irish language to the education system, either. In fact, the 2016 census figures suggest that this approach is already lacking effectiveness. The chart above illustrates that a good deal of Irish speakers fall into the under-18 range, and the chart below clearly shows that the number of speakers who never use the language spikes right at age 19. Simply put: Once kids leave school, they seem to simply stop using the language.

Irish speakers who never use the language by age and gender, according to the 2016 census

Fighting Human Nature

And why shouldn’t they? One may argue that these graduates don’t have enough opportunities to use the language, but I think there’s something else afoot. An older Irishman once told me that the Irish have done a better job of quashing the language than the British ever had done. While this is certainly a strong opinion, I can’t help but wonder how true it is. Think about it: Hinging our efforts at preserving the Irish language on the hope that students in the education system will see the language as more than just another class? That does not sound like a successful formula. After all, we humans in general, and adolescents in particular, naturally resist anything that feels forced upon us. And what better than a mandatory class to follow you for the better part of 18 years to make you feel forced into something? We need more than a classroom to make us care.

Looking engaged? Photo by Sam Balye/Unsplash

Ms Majekodunmi saw Irish as “a way into an adventure that might help [her]future.” She’s even taken the initiative to go and make a career out of it. Similarly, I took an interest in Spanish beyond the classroom, and now I (less impressively) occasionally watch Spanish-language football broadcasts. We both care for our languages for the opportunities they afford us, not the grades they earned us. The question, then, turns to how rare we are in showing that sort of initiative. The answer, as far as these numbers tell, does not look promising.

A bright outlook

There may yet be hope for preserving Irish outside of education. A wave of “new speakers” — “fluent and committed speakers who were not raised with the language in the Gaeltacht” — have arisen that are dedicated to keeping the language alive. There are also positive signs of the language’s growth around Belfast. I myself have been learning Irish on my own time since January, and am glad to have this connection to my heritage. 

And, at the end of the day, that’s what this all comes down to — heritage, culture, and identity. If we can grasp the role of the Irish language in our identity, then preservation should get easier. It encourages me that an Irish immigrant such as Ms Majekodunmi and a descendant of Irish emigrants such as myself would actively strive to adopt Irish as our own. Hopefully, we are not the only ones.

About the author

Nicholas Boonstra

Nicholas is a freelance writer based out of the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area. He avidly loves all things Irish, and also keeps himself involved with music, faith, and West Ham United. He is ecstatic to be part of the Babylon team, and is proud to bring his own American flair to it!

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