Attitudes to languages

I came across an interesting article today which discusses, among other things, attitudes to Irish in Ireland. The writer is a native speaker of Irish from Connemara who bemoans the feelings of inferiority about their language felt by many people in the Gaeltachtaí (the areas where Irish is, in theory, the main language).

Here are a few extracts:

In Ireland Irish is more of an emotional question than a linguistic one. The sound of Irish seems to be lodged in the sub-conscious mind of our people. That might explain why discussions about Irish are more of an emotional nature than about the intricacies of the language itself.

Never is there as much emotion expressed in relation to the other languages they failed to learn at school or didn’t enjoy. And even less knowledge about them. The sounds that I made as a child are still ringing in our ears and pounding in our hearts waiting to be released.

I’ve witnessed many people in the Galltacht expressing the belief that Gaeltacht people have a real sense of pride about their language and would prefer to keep the ‘blow-ins’ out. This may be true of some but the truth is that a feeling of inferiority is rampant among native Irish speakers and has been for centuries.

English is felt to be the ‘better’ language by many in the Gaeltacht.

The effect of losing our language is a subtle shift in our harmony with ourselves. It will not make headlines but its survival is necessary for our fundamental feeling of belonging and our understanding of who we really are.

Similar sentiments and attitudes are unfortunately true for many other minority languages, and indeed ‘non-standard’ dialects. The situation isn’t entirely gloomy in Ireland though – many pupils at the increasingly popular gaelscoileanna (schools that teach everything through the medium of Irish), seem to be proud to speak Irish.

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This entry was posted in Irish, Language, Language learning.

9 Responses to Attitudes to languages

  1. Declan says:

    To be honest the compulsary learning of Irish to Leaving Certificate is a double-edged sword. As people are forced to learn it, it is not being learned with interest and will be totally forgotten and never used after that examination even by those who get an A1. In the more tourist Gaeltachtaí, English is becoming more and more common. Dingle, in a Gaeltacht, should really be called Daingean Uí Cúis, but the people are objecting and wanting the English.

    The three dialects only spoken in isolated parts, often taught by older and old fashioned teachers has led to Irish being perceived as old fashioned. This and Bearlacus (where Irish words are replaced by English varients, Carr for Gluastáin, meaning car, Bal for liathróid meaning ball, Súralta for Cinnte, meaning sure) means that a diluted Irish is being forced into young people, a tiny minority of whom want to or ever speak Irish to any degree of proficency. A festival called the Merriman is partially conducted through Irish, but the fact that the regular attendents are all over sixty represents the state of the language.

    For this minority language, it isn’t all bad, but getting 10% of the marks you didn’t receive when you do state exams through Irish dont work well. (So if you get 90% you get 10% of 10, the result being 91%. 50% goes to 55%, 60% to 64%).

    Irish as a language is becoming dead, and the standerd required by exams is radically different to what is heard on TG4 (the Irish television channel). But most certainly, Irish colleges and the like help Irish to remain something which is learnt with joy for a lucky few, but unfortunately if Irish ever becomes optional, people will not be exposed. That might seem negative, but 20 years ago Latin was compulsory. Now only private schools offer it, and only 10 or 20 or them exist.

  2. This is exactly the attitude which has led to the decline of many Native American languages–that English is somehow “better”. Of course, the U.S. government certainly contributed to this feeling by its initial suppression of native languages, resulting in them not being taught to subsequent generations.

    It’s not enough to just know a language–you have to speak it!

  3. renato says:

    In spite not speaking Irish, I really love this language. When I was child I had a dream to learn most languages as possible ( today, I speak Portuguese, Spanish, English, Italian, French, Esperanto and a litlle Swedish, Russian). I remember that 3 languages I would like to learn more than anything Irish, Mongolian and Arabic( until now I don’t know them), but I studied Irish for some time, I think is a beautiful language, not easy for a foreigner, but I would like to learn it one day. I think people abroad is more interested in learning Irish than Eirenach. I don’t know why but this is a good discussion.

  4. Dave says:

    There was an article recently in the Globe and Mail (Canada) about a revival of sorts of Irish in this generation. I came across the article because I’m trying my best to learn Scottish Gaelic, so this caught my eye. I’m not sure if the article is online, but it’s worth the read.

  5. Jose says:

    I think the attitude toward Irish is repeated in many places of the world, and I cannot understand why it happens in some places and not in others. For example in Spain, where I live, the bilingual regions are very proud of their regional languages and there are a lot of bilingual web sites, but it does not happen the same, for example, with Guarani in Paraguay, Tagalog in the Philippines, Lingala in the Congo…, even though all these languages are spoken by a larger proportion of people than Irish. What is necessary for people from certain places to value their native languages?

  6. New Zealand Coffee Drinker says:

    Amharic and Italian are oh so beautiful.
    Un tasto del caffe’ per favore/And sini buna ebakeh/ebakesh (m/f)= a cup of coffee please.
    i’m part dutch and part irish but i love amharic and italian.

  7. Joe Sweeney says:

    I am an American of Irish ancestry on my paternal side. My Irish ancestors, like the ancestors of so many Irish-Americans, came to the States in the 1840′s–during the potato famine. I lived in France for a couple of years and visited Ireland during that time. Over the space of a couple of weeks I paid the requisite visit to Dublin, then rented a car to travel to the West, passing through the county of my ancestors, County Roscommon, en route to visit some Irish friends in Donegal.

    Since I’m not a native Irishman, I would hardly presume to speak with authority about the current state of the Irish language in modern Ireland, but I recall one scene in Donegal that I remember quite well. I had stopped by a convenience store along the way. As I returned to my car I passed by a group of young adolescents who were ‘hanging out.’ They were all speaking Irish. Though I would have no way of being certain, it seemed to me they were very much at home in this language, that their use of it was not some quaint exercise in preserving the old order. Rather, it was their ‘mother’ tongue, which had not been trumped by the world-dominant lingua franca. To see and hear this suggests the rivival movement to restore the Irish language has been successful. True, it may be of little consequence to the children of Dublin who have not taken in the language like mother’s milk, if at all. Nor will the summer programs in which these children are sent off to the Aran Islands for exposure to their ancestral tongue be of any consequence for most. But that does not mean such education should be abandoned and everyone in Ireland should simply acquiesce to the dominant language as a ‘practical’ matter.

    The writer of the article quoted from above mentions the enduring sense of inferiority felt by many Irish about their language. What he doesn’t mention (at least in the passage quoted above) is the reason for this, which is clearly rooted in the historical facts of Irish history. One of the most effective means of controling a conquered people is to restrict the use of their native tongue, which is exactly what the English did during the occupation. Irish survived in the outlawed “hedge schools,” but was nearly obliterated. In the English schools, the impressionable young were made to feel that the Irish language—indeed everything about Irish culture—was inferior. The Soviet leadership used more or less the same methods with the Ukranians, for example.

    There are numerous examples throughout history of a people feeling ashamed of their mother tongue because an imposing power told them it was inferior. A friend of mine, an anthropologist by training, told me a story of approaching a fellow countryman who taught at the same prestigious university in the Eastern US. When he addressed the man in creole, the man would not reply. He was above speaking this inferior language. But this story reminded me of the wonderful rejoinder someone offered to a man who said, “Creole is just bad French.” The other replied, “Well, for that matter, French is just bad Latin!”

    This condescenion is not always external. Look at how certain dialects are looked down upon. Long after the unification of Italy, Italians from the mainland have expressed disdain for the Sicilian dialect and Sicilians in general. Indeed it is curious, and worth discussing, that so often the people—their dialect, accent, food, etc.— from the south of a given country are looked down upon. The Northern Italians look down on the Southern Italians. The North Germans look down on their Bavarian counterparts. The people of Northern India look down upon the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In the US Northerners have often looked down on people from the South and the Southern accent regarded as inferior. Etc, etc…. To what can we attribute this undeniable pattern?

    One final matter re: the Irish language. A friend of mine once said that a significant number—perhaps even a majority—of the Irish who came to the States in the wake of the Famine were not English speakers. Does anyone know anything about this?

  8. Simon says:

    Joe – I understand that in the 19th century during and after the famine, a significant number of Irish immigrants to the United States and Canada were Irish speakers. I can’t find any figures on this, but the following book might help: The Irish Language in the United States: A Historical, Sociolinguistic, and Applied Linguistic Survey, by Thomas W. Ihde.

    There are currently about 25,000 Irish speakers in the USA and the language is taught at 29 universities.

  9. Orls says:

    I went to the Aran Islands this weekend to practice my Irish before my exams (I’m doing a diploma in Irish in Maynooth and part of job entails writing in Irish, so my Irish isn’t entirely hopeless).

    However, when I tried to talk to the locals as Gaeilge, they just replied to me in English. It was just basic stuff, like things to do and life in general, it is not like I was trying to interrogate them. Just a casual chat in Irish over a pint or two, that was all I wanted to do.

    I also noticed that a lot of signs and menus were in English only. Obviously that makes sense, but why not have the menus in Irish as well? Isn’t that one of the reasons why people go to the Island, to see Irish in real-life action?

    I’ve got to admit I was very disappointed by all this. Don’t get me wrong, I had a brilliant time and everyone was so friendly and kind but if even native speakers can’t be bothered speaking their own language with people who have a genuine interest in learning their language, then what is the point? :(