Monday, 28 March 2011

Is the Irish language taught adequately in our education system?

My love affair with the Irish language ended abruptly. At the age of nine my primary school was broken into and the projector stolen from our classroom.  A lack of funding to replace the device meant our teacher, an aging man, had to do his best with large cardboard sheets, some blue tack and a little creativity. Unfortunately, the adventures of Seán agus Tomás the matchstick Irish men were not enough for me to leave primary school with an adequate grasp of my native tongue. That was when my education in my native language effectively died.

The first year of secondary school, I was met by a grumpy retirement nearing gaelgoir who treated me with disdain because my Irish was not up to his high standards. There followed five years of struggle. My confidence was shot. How was I supposed to understand long winded Irish literature when I couldn't even grasp basic elements like grammar and tense?

The day of my Leaving Cert results, relief was the over riding emotion. I had enough points to go to college and the little blot on the scroll, an F in Irish, was not going to ruin my achievement. 11 years later the shame at not having a word of my language bothers me immensely.

I am not alone. There are many citizens completely disconnected with the most important facet of our nation's character. A question mark over the Irish syllabus and its relevance is coming to the fore.

The latest statistics from the State Examinations Commission show that in 2009 only 79.4 percent of Leaving Certificate students sat the Irish exam, falling below 80 percent for the first time. It is compulsory to take Irish as a course of learning but to sit the exam is the decision of the student. The lull in appetite for a part of our heritage that is intrinsic to our identity is simply astonishing. Many feel it's the education system that is at fault.

Recent manifesto proposals by Fine Gael sought to remove the language as a compulsory subject. When the coalition between Fine Gael and Labour was formed, a compromise was reached and the syllabus is now set for reform.

Fine Gael TD Kieran O'Donnell is delighted with the new programme for government proposals on Irish and admits now is a time for change in the way the language is taught. “There is an issue with spoken Irish and oral Irish in schools and the way that people are coming out from second level school and their spoken Irish and oral Irish is very poor and that needs to be addressed,” he said at a recent post-election debate at the University of Limerick. “My view is that we have to find a mechanism in school where there is a thirst to learn Irish,” he added.

A sixth year at St. Clements secondary school, Limerick, Saoirse Frawley agrees that Irish needs to be modernised and brought in-line with the way foreign languages are taught in schools, “I believe that the Irish syllabus is outdated and needs to be reformed immediately. The stories and poetry were acceptable in a seventies Ireland but not now,” he said. “We should be taught the subject like any foreign language, verbs first, all tenses and then simple vocabulary in order to build a sentence. I find that in Irish I can barely form a sentence and if I do it is always in the past tense. I don't believe I am alone with this,” he added.
The importance of the language has clearly not passed Saoirse by. “I believe, even though I am terrible at the subject that it's very important to young people. When traveling, people ask me to give them a sample of Irish and they are nearly always disappointed,” he pointed out.

Caitriona O' Sullivan a second level Irish teacher in Kanturk, Co. Cork echoes the sentiments of Saoirse, “We are forced as teachers to gear our students to get points in their Leaving Certificate because the system requires that we do this. Instead I would much rather see our students leaving school with a working knowledge of the language,” she said. “Why not give students the tools to use the language as a form of communication in day to day living,” she added.

People's views of the language are informed by their education in it. If it is taught inadequately it becomes a chore. If it is taught well, pleasure can be derived from being able to converse in an indigenous language that informs and enriches our collective identity as a nation. It is not the fault of the teachers, they simply teach the syllabus. The language syllabus needs to be changed as the current one does not work for all. In an increasingly cosmopolitan Ireland we need to hold on to the very thing that makes us who we are.

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