‘An bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithris?’
The teaching of Irish in our primary schools
by Tina Mc Laughlin
Can I speak Irish? As a teacher from Donegal (it only took me 9 words to mention the ‘D’ word…), I’d say, ‘Ara muise, can a fish swim?’. But if I’m being honest, it depends on who is asking.
At school, I enjoy teaching Irish. I use it as often as I can, and I like discovering new vocabulary or phrases. Use it or lose it, right?
But when the shadow of a Cigire floats by my classroom door, my throat seizes, and I hear myself responding to ‘Lean ar aghaidh’ with ‘Sí, Señora’... Ridiculous, I know.
I should, at this point, come clean. I love Irish. Yet, I had more confidence leaving primary school than I have now. I grew up in an English-speaking home and attended an English medium school. But my mammy is from the Gaeltacht. We didn’t realise the benefit of exposure to a native Irish tongue. She spent years apologising for only having the ‘old Irish’ and not the modern ‘book’ Irish. The value of local dialect was lost on us. I am not a native speaker and have the utmost respect and admiration for anyone who is.
So, how did I lose my confidence? I know I’m not alone. I operate a substitute teacher list. More than 75% of the teachers tick ‘no’ when asked if they are available to teach through Irish. I would also tick ‘no’. I’ve never taught Rang a Sé in a Gaelscoil, and I have an irrational fear that I wouldn’t know where to begin.
But what if I could and the only thing holding me back is me? I’m interested in the supports available to teachers. I’ve heard it said – if the teachers fail, we all fail. But has the education system failed the teachers? Are teachers adequately supported to handle the responsibility of protecting our beautiful, endangered language?
Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam
Irish is a minority language, and its survival depends on public attitudes, use in the community and the quality and quantity of input and exposure (both at home and at school). Minority languages are vulnerable and endangered because of the dominance of majority language. Irish is the official language in the Republic of Ireland, but English is the dominant language. It must be noted that religious and political history partially explain the decline of our language.
Is fearr Gaeilge briste na Béarla cliste.
Irish remains a compulsory ‘subject’ in schools. Exemptions can be considered in exceptional circumstances. Most children come from English Dominant homes (EDH) and learn Irish as a single ‘subject’. 7% of children learn through immersion education and less than 1% attend Gaeltacht schools and come from Irish Dominant Homes (IDH). Three recent studies assessed ID children for proficiency and conclusively reported dominance for the majority language by middle childhood. Irish is, indeed, vulnerable to English.
Based on the most recent Census, less than 2% of the Irish population speak Irish daily. Only 1 in 6 speak Irish outside of the educational system. That leaves almost 70% of our population who can’t or won’t speak Irish. How often is ‘An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithris?’ quoted as the ‘Irish’ we learned at school? Dare I say it, was it because of a ‘bad teacher?’ (Oh, she went there…For the record, I had amazing teachers 😇). OR is it due to a lack of understanding on how we learn languages?
I’ve used the word ‘subject’ twice, as I was quoting the Census. But Irish is much more than a subject. It is a living language.
Let’s look at how young children learn their first language. They playfully interact with other people in their environment, to satisfy a communicative need. The 2009 Aistear framework supports our love of playful learning. The benefits of play are well documented in international research. The implementation of the Primary Language Curriculum in 2016 introduced a modern, playful approach to the teaching of both languages: ‘Through appropriately playful learning experiences…’. The child is at the centre of their education journey, and we, as their teachers, can scaffold the path to their next level. Picture books, games, socio-dramatic play, emergent literacy, and rhymes bring language development to life.
But the greatest strength of the PLC 2016, in my opinion, is the Transfer of Skills.
Fun is key to learning Irish. The PLC encourages teachers to use the interdependence hypothesis, or simply, to transfer the skills taught in L1 to L2. What is learned in one language transfers to the other. I reflect on my own teaching. I have used play to transform my approach to teaching English, but can I say the same for Irish?
I recently spoke with a past pupil, who now teaches Irish at 3rd level. She suggests that Irish sits in a box. Teachers hold the key to the box and our nation relies on us to unlock the beauties inside the box. Teaching children to rhyme off decontextualised, rote learning pieces – (liom, leat, léi, linn, anyone?) holds little value for the learner. I’ll put mo lámh suas and admit to using this approach in my earlier days.
What have I learned since?
Children don’t need a worksheet for every lesson.
Encourage them to talk and build their fluency.
Teaching endless reams of vocabulary is not enough. The child needs to use their vocabulary in a real situation, to develop fluency. Roleplay can make the difference. The teacher can model,’D’ith mé mo lón’ during a play session at ‘An Bialann’.
Hand gestures and intonation are invaluable to the young learner.
Games encourage playful learning.
Songs, stories, and rhymes are always a good idea.
Correcting every word and phrase is not helpful for anyone trying to use Irish – young or old. Please, don’t be that guy.
Any use of Irish must be encouraged and celebrated.
It’s an interesting time to be a teacher, but it’s a pivotal time for the teaching of Irish. The lack of teacher confidence and support needs urgent attention. According to the Chief Inspector, Harold Hislop, teacher competence in Irish is declining. Perhaps the removal of the allowances has not helped. Because Irish is required for teacher training, can Irish teachers be culturally diverse? What if a high standard of Irish was an outcome of teacher training and not a condition of entry? I believe more can be done to support the standard of Irish a teacher leaves college with.
What about our teachers who trained outside the state? I trained in Belfast because I had nowhere to live in Dublin. For many reasons, this is an issue for a large cohort of Irish primary teachers. I completed my SCG after graduation. The focus was on my exam result and not supporting the motivation to learn, how I teach Irish or how children learn to speak the language. Darmody and Daly compared attitudes of Irish learners on this island. In the Republic, Irish is learned to pass exams. In Northern Ireland, Irish is learned to speak Irish. Intrinsic motivation leads to a greater use of the language, although other factors, including politics and religion are still at play.
Fortunately, teacher efforts to acquire proficiency can be supported.
There are many courses and classes available through Education Centres and companies such as Gaelchultúr which promote our use of the Irish language and how we teach it.
Foras na Gaeilge supports educational initiatives such as Gaelbhratach (The Irish language flag) along with Gael Linn.
Online ‘Ciorcal Cáinte’ create an excellent opportunity for teachers wishing to build their confidence.
Education Centres endeavour to meet our needs – contact your local one if you would like extra support with your use of Irish.
Our Gaeltacht areas are brimming with native speakers - should we be asking for their help?
Language acquisition is a vast area of research, but there is excitement in the conflict. There is no consensus on how to best learn a language, but diversity is good, and debate is healthy. It allows for creativity, diversity, and cultural acceptance. For us educators, guidance remains unclear. We know that no child exists on their own. An awareness of culture, interactions, relationships, agency, and diversity equip us to create fun, playful, and meaningful learning environments for every child in our care to acquire a second language to the best of their ability.
We can only do our best.
And please, use your cúpla focail.
Tina Mc Laughlin is a primary teacher in Co. Donegal with over 17 years teaching experience. After several years working at the senior end of the primary school, Tina made the move to the junior classes. In the midst of her years teaching, Tina took a career break to study psychology in UCD. Tina has represented District 3 on the INTO Education Committee. Tina is currently completing a Masters in Early Childhood Education at Marino Institute of Education.
Connect with Tina via her wonderful Instagram page @teacherofdotes.
Lenses into Learning is the guest post feature of this website. Here, educators spanning a variety of educational sectors share opinion pieces, recommendations and thematic articles to inspire conversation, development and learning.