Has it come to this?


In light of Fine Gael proposing to make Irish an optional Leaving Certificate subject, Matthew Jones looks at the debilitating effects this move could have on the language

The compulsory teaching of the Irish language has been a bone of contention for many years. When people hear the word ‘compulsory’, negative connotations immediately arise in their thoughts.

It is often argued that the seven-hour Leaving Certificate paper is a major difficulty for young students as it puts them under too much pressure. But let’s look for a moment at the other lengthy papers. Maths is five hours in total, as is French, whereas English is six hours and ten minutes overall – and that’s not even spread out over two papers, a listening comprehension and an oral exam.

Fine Gael plan to change the system of how the Irish language is currently taught in schools. They believe that if learning Irish becomes optional, the scheme would ensure that only the students who truly wanted to learn the language would do so, and that the stress of the exam would be taken away from those who didn’t want to study the subject.

This proposal is in opposition to the views shared by the majority of Irish people. As a rule, certain sceptics believe that if this step is undertaken, then irreparable damage will be done to the Irish language.

But it is not just the language itself that will face difficulties as a result of this move. Gaeltacht areas, whose residents depend on the annual economic boost that school summer camps bring, will sink further and further into recession. Teachers too will lose jobs. If there is a drop in the requirement for Irish teachers, schools will have no choice but to let valuable staff members go.

This move is not going unopposed however. The Union of Students in Ireland organised a silent protest outside Dáil Éireann in last month that had the support of over 2,000 people on Facebook.

In fact, third-level students have traditionally given strong support to the cause of the Irish language. The UCD-based Seachtain na Gaeilge’s No Béarla campaign attracts a significant number of participants from throughout the entire student body, not just from those who are furthering their studies in the language.

It is true that it was not only fluent speakers who dutifully promised to spend the week speaking Irish and wear the green hoodies associated with Seachtain na Gaeilge. However, the ubiquity of non-fluent speakers was proof of the support for the language; even these people were willing to openly demonstrate that they want to preserve it.

Yet the Irish language is not the only part of our culture that is under threat. Many people will remember the controversial decision to undertake building work near to the protected historical site of the Hill of Tara. As a result of this and several other decisions, Ireland is regarded among the European community as being a nation that disregards its heritage. Perhaps we can learn from other nations in the European Union. How has making the learning of a second language optional influenced the number of students who decided to study one?

In England, the optional learning of a second language after the age of 14 was introduced in 2004. Labour ministers predicted a decline in the numbers of students learning a second language and a lower standard of learning among those who did, and their prediction has been validated.

There has been a reduction (of approximately 33 per cent) in the numbers of students taking languages at GCSE Level in the past seven years, and only a minority of students achieving A+ to C grades in these subjects. A University of Manchester academic, Jocelyn Wyburd, said that after researching the decline of language learning in England: “Students will vote with their feet because they can…make Irish optional and watch it wither.”

Many pro-Irish advocates who support an overhaul of the system share Wyburd’s opinion. With the current system in place, students are being put under considerable pressure. In 2004, a commission from the Council of Europe recommended changing the syllabus, with a greater focus on the spoken aspect of the language, as opposed to learning a variety of poems. Surely that is a better way of improving the system, rather than a blanket decision that will undo decades of work to revive the Irish language.