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.
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.