Irish language policy

Jeffrey Kallen jkallen at
Tue Mar 15 10:44:44 UTC 2005

I've been interested by the comparisons between Hawaiian and Irish, and I
thought I'd offer my view from Ireland on one half of the topic. Irish
language policy is difficult to categorise in terms of L1 or L2 goals or
achievements. The Irish Constitution puts it clearly: 'The Irish language
as the national language is the first official language. The English
language is recognised as a second official language'. (Interestingly,
though, the Irish-language version of the Constitution doesn't give English
'second' official language status, but states that it may be used 'mar
theanga oifigiúil eile', i.e. as 'another official language'.) The
constitutional position may look like simple ideology, but it transfers
into reality in many ways, bearing in mind that the designation of Irish as
"the national language" (at least within the Republic of Ireland) doesn't
imply that it is the "most widespread mother tongue" (which it isn't by any
means).  The legal designation both reflects and encourages the view that
Irish occupies a special place in talking about what it means to have 'our
own language', a point which has taken on more relevance as Ireland expands
its relations within Europe. (Just recently the Irish government has pushed
to upgrade the status of Irish within the European Union, pressurised by
public opinion when the new accession states, especially Malta, came in to
the EU with working status for their national languages.) The sense of
native language is important for the many people whose families are now
English-speaking, but whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents
may have been Irish-speakers or fully bilingual. It is also important in so
far as Irish English reflects various aspects of the Irish language,
whether through borrowing, codeswitching, effects of language contact in
earlier generations, or in other ways.  It is important, too, in the sense
that generations of Irish people share the experience of having learned
Irish in school, so that school vocabulary is part of the (unique) shared
experience of being Irish. Thousands of people from English-speaking homes
also attend Irish-medium schools at primary and secondary level; these
schools are now developing a kind of first-language Irish which is not the
same as mother tongue Irish (and is itself therefore a point of
controversy). And of course, Irish is easy to see, both in official
language usage and in unofficial domains such as sporting organisations,
'Irish weeks' held in schools and colleges, and broadcast media.  If you
add all these factors together, you can see that Irish language learning is
not L2 learning in the sense that English language learning is for people
in Mongolia or even as it is for heritage language learners in the US.
Neither is it L1 education as it would be when teaching Spanish to Mexican
immigrant children living in Texas. It lies somewhere in between, or
rather, I think it suggests that L1 and L2 are not discrete categories and
that Irish in Ireland occupies something of a middle ground.

>>From this position, it follows that judging the success or failure of Irish
language movements is problematical. In relation to a romantic goal of
restoring Irish to the position of "mother tongue, native language" of the
vast majority of the population (and the main language of reading, writing,
and electronic media), Irish policy has not succeeded. But, then,
government plans rarely do succeed in such absolute terms: goals such as
the elimination of poverty, discrimination, and war are aspirations which
governments often have (at least on paper) but do not achieve. On the other
hand, the goal of raising the status and respect for Irish relative to what
it was in most of the 19th century  has been achieved. (The fact that 41.9%
of the population in the Republic returned themselves as Irish speakers in
the 2002 census does not necessarily mean that this proportion is very good
at the language -- but it does mean that they value it enough to include
themselves as Irish speakers. That in itself says a lot.) The goal of
ensuring that Irish maintains a role in Irish society has also been
achieved, and the goal of ensuring that intergenerational continuity for
Irish exists at all levels of language use has also been largely
successful. From the point of view of linguistic purism, Irish as a
language is in some trouble under the pressures of bilingualism and lack of
opportunities to use Irish, and the Gaeltacht regions where Irish is
supposed to be the community first language are under pressure as well.
For example, the 1981 census showed 75,000 people in the combined Gaeltacht
areas, of whom 77.4% were Irish speakers; the 2002 census shows 86,517
people in the Gaeltacht, but a small decline to 72.6% as Irish speakers. In
both sets of figures, the percentage of Irish speaskers broken down  by age
peaks in the school years, but of the post-school adults, the percentage of
Irish-speakers in the Gaeltacht has dropped over the last 20 years (e.g.
79.8% of 45-54 year olds were returned as Irish speakers in 1981, but the
percentagefor this age group had fallen to 70.6% in 2002). In the 19th
century, Irish-usage was more concentrated in deeply Irish-speaking areas;
today it is spread much more evenly across the country (in the Republic).
These figures point to an L2 role for Irish, in that the spread of Irish
into the counties from which it had virtually vanished by 1900 has not
displaced English (nor do census figures suggest that those returned as
Irish speakers have any great degree of skill in the language), but I still
think that the L2 status of Irish is not like that of French or German.

So is Irish language policy a success or not? It really does depend on what
you are looking for. My feeling is that when you consider the very real
threats posed to Irish in the 19th century, Irish has done very well. And
I'm  not forgetting the Belfast agreement, the terms of which established a
cross-border language authority for Irish (alongside a cross-border
authority for Ulster Scots), thus providing international legal support for
Irish in Northern Ireland, and, incidentally, bringing the UK to ratify the
European Convention on Regional or Minority Languages. (The Irish
government has not ratified the Charter for fear of creating a
contradiction between the position of Irish as an official language and the
view that it might be seen as a minority language. But that's another
story.) Of course it also has to be admitted that Irish, like so many
languages, is still under pressure from English and that the success of
Irish in the long term is still open to question. (Immigration into Ireland
in recent years has also changed the linguistic landscape, but that, too,
is another story.)

You may be interested in the report which has just been released from the
Language Commissioner in Ireland. It is available (in bilingual format)
from the Commissioner's website (which is also bilingual),

Jeff Kallen
Trinity College Dublin

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