Sunday, April 12, 2015

Changing Government Policies towards the Teaching of Irish(Gaelic)

"Changing Government Policies towards the Teaching of Irish (Gaelic)"
Brian Ó Broin
William Paterson University, NJ
Paper delivered at the conference of the International Linguistics Association, Columbia University, New York City
Saturday, April 25th, 2015

The teaching of Irish (Gaelic) in Irish schools has been controversial since the foundation of Saorstát Éireann (The Irish Free State) in 1922. Cultural zealots, most of them second language speakers themselves, appropriated the Irish education system to revive the Irish language, but insisted on reviving an artificial, archaic, classical version of Irish that they imagined had been spoken several centuries earlier before Gaelic hegemony was broken by English invasion. Elementary-level teachers,most of them unable to speak or read the language themselves, were expected to speak nothing but Irish to their pupils, but were given little or no support. The curriculum and examination system prized a knowledge of grammar, classical Irish literature, and memorized essays, and the result was an angry, demoralized nation with a hatred for the language and virtually no spoken abilities.
Anti-Gaelic sentiment spread through the highly post-colonial nation in the sixties and seventies, leading to an almost complete disestablishment of the Irish language, and the language has only gradually crept back as a medium of instruction since then. Close to 10% of Irish schools now cater to native speakers or provide an immersion system for English-speaking families.
The curriculum has not kept pace, however. Although the country's new Primary School Curriculum (Grades K-6) recognizes the need for curricula that cater to both English speakers (for whom Irish will be a target language) and Irish speakers (for whom it will be a language of instruction), and provides said curricula, the Secondary School Curriculum is a complete failure. The curriculum, and its two closely-connected state examinations, the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate, cater only to learners of the English language, meaning that native speakers and immersion students are treated like simpletons, being awarded high marks for simply being able to form basic sentences.
A separate curriculum and examinations system is required for these schools, but this raises difficulty. Will native speakers actually choose such a curriculum, given that more work will be required of them, particularly when university entrance is highly competitive and depends greatly on points gathered through the examination system? Or will they continue to take exams that do not challenge them in any way, knowing that they will pick up easy points for college entrance? A possible solution is to make a native-speaker curriculum more valuable for college entrance, but English speakers will likely respond to this by declaring that such a proposal discriminates against them.

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