Irish Tongues Are Wagging in U.S. Classrooms

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jun 14 13:44:33 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, June 14, 2006

Irish Tongues Are Wagging in U.S. Classrooms

DUBLIN For generations, Irish schoolchildren have grown up despising
Gaelic, this country's native language and a mandatory subject from
kindergarten through high school. But these days the language, which most
people here simply call "Irish," is experiencing something of a
renaissance. Irish-language schools and an Irish-language television
station are booming in popularity, despite Gaelic's seemingly
unpronounceable strings of consonants. And now the language's supporters,
who have long bemoaned the impending death of the ancient tongue, have set
their sights overseas. The government department responsible for promoting
the language began a fund last year that will dole out grants, of up to
$36,000, to help international colleges establish programs teach Gaelic.
This fall, the local branch of the Fulbright program will, for the first
time, send native-speaking teaching assistants to American universities.

"Their immediate response was: 'Yes, yes, yes! We can't get enough
teachers!' " said Carmel Coyle, director of the Irish Fulbright
Commission. Four assistants are going to colleges with Irish studies
programs New York University, Boston College, Notre Dame and the
University of St.  Thomas in Houston. In some ways, Ireland is catching
up. Of the 51 universities outside Ireland that teach Irish, 29 are in the
United States. The Fulbright program has sponsored foreign language
teaching assistants to work and study at American universities since 1968.
Those modest one-year fellowships have generally gone to teachers of
perennially popular languages, like Spanish and French, and more recently
are going to languages like Arabic, Hindi, Turkish and Urdu.

Still, a language that has few practical applications besides deciphering
road signs in Connemara and reading old Irish literature is a less obvious
choice. Slightly more than half of Irish language students at Notre Dame
are descendants of Irish immigrants, a result of what Christopher Fox,
director of the university's Keough Institute for Irish Studies, called
"the third-generation effect." Societal bias meant that earlier
generations "couldn't be ethnic in America," he said in a telephone
interview. "Now it's O.K., and they want to connect." Mr. Fox added, "The
Irish language is seen as one way of doing that."

But Gaelic also appeals to students who are interested in linguistics, the
preservation of indigenous cultures, or the role languages play in
international politics, Mr. Fox and other university professors said. And
there are those who simply like Irish culture. Meghan Donaldson, 22, a
senior at Notre Dame with no Irish roots, studied French and Spanish
before she decided to take Irish this semester, after spending time abroad
in Ireland. She also got involved in Irish organizations on campus, like
teams that compete in traditional step-dancing and in the sport of

"It's geared toward learning the language rather than passing the tests,"
she said. "They make it a lot of fun." Notre Dame first taught the
language in the 1860's, but stopped offering courses in the 1950's. Since
it restarted the program in 1994, student interest "has been astonishing,"
Mr. Fox said. The number of students enrolled in Irish-language classes
has jumped to 296 from 114 in three years. That enthusiasm certainly
surprises people in Ireland. "It's a big battle for kids here to learn
their national language," said Aibhistin O Coimin, an Irish-language
teacher at Wesley College, a school in Dublin encompassing the American
equivalent of kindergarten through Grade 12.

Mr. O Coimin, 27, is going to teach at Boston College this fall as part of
the Fulbright program. "They think it's odd," he said, referring to the
reaction of his class that he would be teaching in the United States.
"They think it's very strange." Ms. Coyle said the fellowship recipients
"go out as ambassadors for the country." But with a bit of reverse
psychology, the government wants the program to improve attitudes here,
too, with the rationale that, if American students like it, it must be
worthwhile, said Deaglan O Briain, a policy officer in the Department of
Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. "We can raise the perceived status
of the language at home by showing that it's taught abroad as well," he

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