The Irish language doesn’t need a minister


The result of this lunacy over decades is that we are now near the bottom of the Eurostat chart for languages. In schools in other European countries kids routinely learn one or two foreign languages from an early age.

Here learning another language (apart from Irish) is optional and kids don't start until they are in secondary school. Most of them take French, which is less important these days, and their conversational ability typically is poor when they finish school.

This comes at a cost both for the individuals and for the economy. We frequently hear about all the new jobs here in companies like Google, Facebook, etc., but what we don't hear much about is that these companies import young foreign workers with language skills to fill many of these jobs (in customer services, etc.) because they can't get young Irish people who can do the work. And with poor language ability, the young Irish who want to emigrate to other European countries are also at a serious disadvantage.

Some time ago the European Council's Language Policy division issued a report which urged Ireland to switch from what it called "an official but lame bilingualism" to a truly multilingual approach. In other words, they were telling us that our present concentration on Irish is disastrous for us.

Of course Irish language supporters don't accept any of this and say that children's brains are like sponges with an ability to soak up other languages as well as Irish. They can learn German and Chinese as well as Irish, they say. It's not one or the other.

But if you talk to teachers here, many say that Irish takes up so much school time there simply is not enough time and energy to give other languages sufficient attention. The reality is that there are only so many hours in the school week, and Irish eats up a lot of them.

No one denies the genuine enthusiasm that exists among a lot of people here for Irish, as shown by the growth in the number of Gaelscoils (these are schools which not only concentrate on Irish but teach all other subjects through Irish as well). That enthusiasm was reflected in the demonstration in Dublin in February this year by a few thousand Irish supporters who were demanding more state support for Irish in schools and everyday life.

No one questions their love for the language -- and the Irish language is beautiful as well as complex -- but they have a tendency to force their views on everyone else. The vast majority of people here don't share their enthusiasm and certainly don't believe that the widespread use of Irish, even to the point of replacing English altogether which is what some of the Irish language fanatics would like, is either desirable or a proof of how Irish you are.

The reality is, of course, that being native English speakers is a tremendous advantage to us in today's world. The global language of business and trade is English.

But having another language is also a big plus in today's world. Starting in primary school, our kids should be learning world languages like German, Spanish or Chinese, not compulsory Irish, which 90 percent of them will never use again once they have left school at 18.

As part of an Irish education we should replace "Irish" with Irish cultural studies which would cover music, dance, literature, art, some history and a few Irish phrases. Those who want to learn more of the language could be offered intensive classes in the Irish language, but it should never be compulsory for anyone.

Those parents and kids who love the language and want an education through Irish can be supported through the gaelscoils, which should be funded by the state on the same basis as all other schools here.

No one wants to deny their rights, but the rest of the population have rights as well. And at the moment the continuation of compulsory Irish is denying their right to choose what their children study in school.

At some point our gutless politicians are going to have to confront our national hypocrisy about Irish and start saying what everyone knows -- that Irish is never going to be brought back as the everyday language of the country. The powerful Irish language lobby will scream and call it anti-national and West British and so on. But at some point it will have to be done.

One of the reasons is the huge cost of supporting Irish at the moment, which runs into hundreds of millions every year. We all pay for it, the TG4 Irish television channel, the Irish language organizations, the special grants for Gaeltacht areas (where the reality is there is as much English as Irish spoken), the cost of providing nearly all state documents in both Irish and English, and above all, the astronomical cost of compulsory Irish in all schools (which is never properly calculated).

The big problem in all this is that there is no clarity in state policy on the language. Officially, the state still supports the notion that the language can be revived and that one day we will all speak Irish. Abandoning that fanciful notion is seen as anti-national and our politicians are afraid to confront it.