Compulsory languages

In an article I came across today in the Irish Times the writer, an Irish speaker, wonders whether the compulsory teaching of Irish language in schools in Ireland is the best way to keep the language alive. He argues that those who are interested in the language will continue to learn it and speak it even if it is no longer compulsory in schools. I’ve seen suggestions like this many times for Irish and other minority languages, and it is difficult to say what is best as there is some truth in the idea that making a subject compulsory isn’t necessarily the best way to get people to study it.

What are your thoughts on this?

13 thoughts on “Compulsory languages

  1. Making lessons compulsory is the worst possible way of supporting a minority language as children will readily rebel against something they are forced to do which they don’t enjoy, which they don’t see as useful and, most importantly, doesn’t increase their social standing amongst their peers.

    Basically, learning Irish is not ‘cool’ (or whatever the kids say today). Nothing the government can do will do anything about this and they should stop trying.

    What should be compulsory is that the opportunity to learn the language should be available in every school. Cleverly designed incentives could be used to encourage interest without any compulsion.

    Perhaps a short introductory course could be mandatory as a way to spark interest but the Irish system of years of compulsory study has been shown without a shadow of doubt to be a monumental failure and a colossal if not criminal waste of money.

    The billions which have been wasted could have been spent much more inventively over the year to encourage and sustain interest in the Irish language. For example, why not compensate companies for allowing employees time off to attend summer schools or other Irish-language events during working hours. Young people who had been keen on Irish at school will in most cases move on to a work and social environment which is 100% English. Much as people may think they’d like to go to night school or weekend courses/events, the time pressures of modern life means this is not a realistic option for most people.

    If young adults are encouraged and supported to maintain their interest in the Irish language and develop and sustain a higher level of fluency then when they have children themselves they would be more likely to try and raise their children bilingually. Only when more children are raised in Irish as well as English in the home will the language have any hope of a long-term future as a living language. Throwing money at schools for compulsory lessons will make no difference whatsoever.

  2. Agree. Compulsory is not the way. Offer K-3 or -4 immersions schools for the parents that want that. If it is popular enough, add a year every year till you have K-12 immersion schools, for those who want them.

  3. When I was younger, in school and later as a young adult, I was 100% against being compelled to study a language I had no interest or ability in nor any connection to. Now, as a not so young adult, I am interested in and appreciate this fragile minority languages position and value in our majority English speaking country. These days, I am much more undecided about the value of compulsory Irish.

    I’m very suspicious of some of those who wish to remove compulsion, as often many see the language in negative ways or as a pointless historical hangover, and really just want the language to fade away or at least be confined to a hobbyist cultural past-time status.

    On the other hand, in my experience, compulsion combined the inadequate curriculum, teaching/learning approach did nothing for my acquisition or positive appreciation of a language, which at that time suffered from a serious prestige/identity problem. Often it can create a toxic atmosphere of failure, difficulty and incapacity around a language or language learning in general. It did for me and the comment threads of any newspaper article regarding ANY aspect of the language regularly throws up others who have what I would politely call “unprocessed” negative experiences and feelings from such a schooling that they are unable or unwilling to disentangle from the language or its speakers.

    In my view, compulsion in the Irish context is, only a partially successful element in an overall poor strategy at language maintenance/revitalisation which put too much emphasis on educational institutions (at primary, secondary) and doesn’t really addresses all the other areas where revitalisation strategies could be pushed. One result of this is that only a small percentage of the population regularly use the language outside of educational contexts.

    There’s much to still to think about on this question but I can’t say I’m optimistic the emerging discussion in Ireland will allow for it rather than the usual knee-jerk mudslinging or short-termist bee-counting arguments.

  4. We have a similar situation in Canada with compulsory French studies in English-speaking areas and compulsory English in French-speaking areas. Most kids don’t want to learn it, hate learning it and don’t care that it can actually help them get jobs in the future. Add to that a terrible curriculum that teaches practically nothing for 12 years and some teachers who are woefully inadequate and we have a failing system. Why can’t we learn from the English language curriculum in some European countries where the kids are nearly fluent by the age of 16 (from experience with some Austrian 15 year old students). It might help if the curriculum were completely revamped and we stopped underestimating the language acquisition skills of young children.

  5. I m not Irish but I was wondering why the government doesn’t introduce Irish as a language of administration -such an element of compulsion would force people to learn. I am not sure that learning Irish should be seen as “not cool”

    Clearly there has be some sphere of life where only Irish is used otherwise such a programme would not be succesful. There has to some relationship perhaps to an Irish publicl/ literary sphere where access to literature, music, politics in the language is sought after.

  6. I am a “victim” of mandatory language teaching. The difference was that I was forced to take Russian for 8 years (grades 5 – 12). We all resented being forced to take that particular language (of course our situation was somewhat different because this was the language of our “Big Brother”), however, the outcome was such that very few people became fluent enough in Russian to be able to carry on a normal conversation or write a decent essay. Also, there is a big question of having opportunities to use the language after the person is done with school. After 36 years of not using Russian, I definitely lost even the little bit of the language command I had at the end of high school.

    On the other side of the spectrum, I started “teaching” my sons Polish when they were born. They did not have any problem mastering two languages as children. I noticed that since they moved away to college, they have not had many opportunities to use Polish. Now when they are home on vacation, I see that their Polish language skills are not as good as before and they are switching to English when talking to each other.

    I think that whether there is mandatory Irish language instruction at schools or not, the key to the language survival is its everyday use by Irish people. Without it, the language will end up dead, even if it is forced as a school subject for a few years on majority of population.

  7. I’m glad to say that, here in Mannin (the Isle of Man), learning Gaelg (Manx Gaelic) is, and has always been, a voluntary activity. We have our wonderful Bunscoill Ghaelgagh (Manx language primary school), with around 70 pupils, where all teaching is in Manx. Attending this school is a voluntary alternative to using the primary state education sector, but it is heavily oversubscribed – one lady member of our weekly Manx conversational group was delighted yesterday to receive confirmation that her four-year-old daughter had been accepted to start at the school in September.

    The number of Manx speakers continues to grow, without any compulsion, and I am sure will continue to do so.

  8. I don’t think compulsory language teaching is the best way, especially when you have a wider used language in competition, and that’s the case with Irish. If Irish was made the official language of government, institutions, etc. then you will see more people learning Irish mostly because they have to survive. Similar case in the United States, no one really wants to learn English growing up but we need it because we have to, and it is the language of our parents in some cases.

    Language education starts in the home, if the child grows up learning Irish in the home then he will take more of an interest with it especially if that is the only language the parents will speak with the child. I know several parents who raised their child to be multilingual and one will only speak Arabic and the other will only speak Urdu and the results have been very positive.

  9. Thank you for finding this article, Simon! It’s really interesting to me. I was taught compulsory English and then a compulsory choice of “Latin or French” in school and as we know most non-English speaking countries are taught compulsory English. Students don’t question it and societies put value on this, but of course it’s not because we hope to keep the English culture going strong. It’s because we believe it serves us to teach English to non-English speaking kids.

    With languages like Irish and Welsh, I can see how the compulsory teaching can feel a whole lot less useful. I’d still advocate for it based on a hope that at least 1/3 of the students will discover that it’s actually a pretty awesome thing to learn. And that it fosters a national identity, pride and sense of open-mindedness. Bit utopian?

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