Irish & Basque: Unnecessary languages! (Or are they…?)

What makes a language useful?
What makes a language useful?

Recently I read the article, “Can anybody truthfully say that Irish is a necessary language?,” where the Irish author, Rosita Boland, expresses her frustration at the time wasted (12 years!) at failing to learn the first national language of Ireland.

Ms. Boland suffered at studying this language unsuccessfully at school. She writes, “The disgrace, as I see it, is being forced by the State to study a compulsory language for which I had no aptitude, absolutely no interest in, and no choice about throughout my entire school career. Where is the pedagogic sense in that?” To be honest, this sounds like my 14-year old’s laments about learning to divide polynomials: “How am I ever going to use that?”

I agree with my 14-year old, so I can’t dismiss Ms. Boland’s complaints out of hand.

But the author’s complain goes deeper. Not only did she fail to learn this compulsory subject, her country’s Constitution ties her Irish identity to it. She further argues, “It is written into our Constitution that Irish is our national language and the first official language. English is recognised as a second official language. That does not make sense.” She resents that her Constitution would define her by the subject that she hated and failed in school.

While she is right that Irish cannot be spoken outside of Ireland, does that make it less “useful”? Is this the only standard of “usefulness”?

Let’s take the example of Basque. While 82,600 people in Ireland speak Irish outside of school (according to the 2011 census), almost 720,000 people speak Basque, if you combine speakers from Spain and France.

Significantly, the highest percentage of speakers comes from the 16-25 year old age demographic, double the percentage of the 65+ age range. Basque is growing successfully.

What is the difference between Irish and Basque? Why the vitriol from a failed Irish learner, yet growing engagement among the Basque? One hundred years ago, there were plenty of monolingual speakers of both (New York was full of Irish speakers, and Idaho, Basque-speaking shepherds). The languages suffered terribly in the 20th century. One language bounced back, and the other created disengagement and antipathy.

Neither is “useful” outside of its native land. Come to think of it, most languages are not “useful” out of their native land. (Amharic? Yoruba? Tamil? Lao?)

So what makes Basque different?

First, subjects in the Basque Country (in Spain) are taught in Basque. Our exchange student has been going to the same school from age 3. The means of instruction have always been Basque, until Spanish was introduced at age 8. She has never taken math in Spanish. It is common for kids to speak Basque among themselves. You have your Spanish-speaking friends and your Basque-speaking friends. Some kids speak Basque to one side of the family and Spanish to the other side.

Granted, some of the teachers do not speak Basque as well as others. At private schools, the teachers tend to speak Basque better. Your child will learn Basque, unless you decide to put your child in a non-Basque speaking school.

In Ireland, Irish is a subject. The means of general school instruction is English. Thus Ms. Boland’s argument for a lack of “aptitude” only makes sense in the Irish context. Five-year-old Basque kids just speak Basque.

Second, one cannot get a job in the Basque country without knowledge of Basque. One can receive different levels of certification in Basque, but almost any job requires some level of sufficiency. Here’s an article entitled, “It’s never too late for Basque”, aimed at adult learners of Basque.

Ireland requires no one to speak Irish, except in the Gaeltacht designated region. The new Irish language government minister can’t speak Irish.

It seems to me, then, that the Irish government has not put policies in place that actualize their constitution. The Basque government, which has much less resources than Ireland, made the language a clear priority in education.

Ms. Boland is, deep down, reacting to the inability of the Irish government to make Irish relevant. Translating documents and creating a language “reservation” in the far West is not enough. Ineffective classes for a few hours per week do not create speakers of the language. Making Irish the true first language of the country requires educating a generation of teachers able to teach the entire curriculum in Irish.

What makes a language relevant, important, or useful?

Photo credit: Stephen Poff via / CC BY-NC-ND


11 thoughts on “Irish & Basque: Unnecessary languages! (Or are they…?)

  1. Rachel

    Here’s a documentary you might be interested in: An Feidir Linn? (“Can We?”), which assesses the situation of Irish and the current plan for the language from a business perspective. It also includes visits to Basque country and to Wales to compare Irish with the two languages.

    In this video (, known troublemaker Manchan Magan goes to Ellan Vannin to have a look at their Manx-language school… and Brian Stowell tells him pretty emphatically that the worst thing you can do for a language is to make it compulsory. It’s the same in Scotland and in Nova Scotia – if you make it an option, people go for it.

    Interestingly, the people in the above video are actually speaking two different languages – Manchan in Irish and Paul and Brian in Manx – so there’s somewhere you can speak Irish outside Ireland. Likewise Scotland – this video ( features Donnchadh and Paul at 20 minutes and Tomas and Aonghas at 21:40 speaking Irish and Gaidhlig respectively… and understanding each other perfectly well. Actually, that show aired on BBC Alba without need for Gaelic subtitles. Also in this episode – – Seumas in Gaelic and Donnchadh in Irish at about 10 minutes.

    Just to prove there’s a use to Irish outside Ireland! Not that you’re likely to find many Gaelic-speakers in most parts of Scotland, although Donnchadh and crew started in the Western Isles, where about 70% are native speakers. Parts of Cape Breton also have decent numbers of Gaelic-speakers, as well as certain pockets of New Zealand. And Circular Quay in Sydney on a Wednesday afternoon…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachel

    I sort of get the feeling, after reading the article, that she would have resented Spanish equally, had she had the chance to learn it. Speaking two languages has all sorts of benefits, if you put your mind to it, regardless of the language. Being a native English-speaker and having a handle on Irish would have given her more of an advantage for a third language than if she had learnt Spanish as the second – grammatically, phonetically and vocabularily, English and Spanish are a lot closer than English and Irish.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Buidheag

    What’s more, Rosita Boland claims that “she did not like having a language [Irish] she had no interest in being forced on me as a child and teenager”… As if that had not been the case for her “first and only language” (English)!!!!
    Monolinguals are amazing! Do they trully believe that they chose their “mother” tongue?!


  4. You touched on a very divisive subject for us Irish! I totally understand Ms. Boland’s feelings in this case and I can relate to her experience having studied Irish myself for 13 years in school. However, I don’t think the the problem is that it’s a mandatory subject. The problem is that the curriculum is poorly constructed and most of the teachers are using extremely out of date methods.

    In particular at secondary school level (high school in the US), the entire focus of the teaching is on passing an exam rather than understanding and using the language. This leads to a situation where students are afraid to make mistakes because they will be penalized heavily for doing so. It also leads to many students simply learning by heart essays that are 2 or 3 pages long which are written by the teacher. The students are then told that the best way to pass the exam is to reproduce that text word for word in their exam. That’s not to mention the fact that there is almost no speaking of the language in classes. The only time that speaking is practiced is in the run up to oral exams which even at the end of high school are the equivalent of the kind of conversation one could expect to have after about 3 or 4 months of intensive self-study.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. James, that’s interesting. I had no idea it was so bad. When I went to Ireland in my teenage years as an exchange student, my exchange partner’s younger sister had just come back from Irish College. To me, the idea of attending classes on any subject taught entirely in Irish did sound good, but the girl hated it. Unfortunately, I did not ask her why she hated it. Do you have any experience with Irish College?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see why people feel so miserable about it. It’s always depressing when the language has to come out of your mouth fully formed, no mistakes allowed. I can see why Benny the Irish Polyglot hated languages till he got out of school (though, as far as I know, he never learned Irish so well).


  5. Pingback: Euskara es una patria! Language as homeland – Loving Language

  6. People need a language for communication or for identity. When Irish is no longer the language of identity and does not helps much with the communication, many Irish may feel like this author. And you Basque comparison does not really work: you essentially say „apply more pressure“ (language needed for work, language as means of instruction), but it’s probably late.

    [I remember that shock when I’ve met my first native speaker of a minority language who was like „it’s needed nowhere and I am not going to invest my time into it“]


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