The Importance of Languages

This article by the Irish Independent is about the Government’s newly unveiled plan to increase the number of practicing Irish speakers in Ireland and I, for one, thoroughly support the effort.

Having previously been one of the many students in Ireland bored by Irish because it was one of the compulsory subjects and it was not necessary to speak it in my daily life outside of Irish class I understand all too well the common response to adopting Irish as Ireland’s mother tongue. The common response is generally “why the hell do I want/need to learn Irish?!” I will gladly admit that I too suffered from the lamentable jaded-ness that comes from learning Irish in school but it remains a fact that having Irish as Ireland’s mother tongue would be highly beneficial for each and every Irish person living in Ireland.

It’s well worth pointing out that my opinion on Irish has since undergone a distinct 180-degree flip, spurred on, surprisingly enough, by my mastery of the German language. It’s also worth noting that languages are not everyone’s strongest abilities (I for one have no problem switching between comparably similar languages like Spanish and Italian, though I am by no means anything but a severe beginner in either language, but this is not an ability everyone shares, even people who are good with languages in general) just like musical or mathematical ability is not innate in everyone, however even people who are not innately adept at languages fare extremely well when forced, whether by choice or by circumstance, to deal with a given language everyday.

The primary benefits of having Irish as Ireland’s mother tongue are not only cultural but also intellectual. A language is not just a series of words but a system of describing the world and anyone who has even a passing understanding of foreign languages will know that no two languages see the world in quite the same way. The subtle difference between a “blue house” or “house blue” (teach gorm in irish) is actually a prime example of this different view on the world among many others: French people would say 82 as “4 times 20, and 2” or in German it would be “80 and 2” and quite a good number of languages (most notably Eskimo or Aleut languages) feature demonstrative pronouns that range far above our mere “this” and “that.” Poetry offers a great insight into this perceptive and descriptive difference. A great line I always think of from a German musician says “das Abend wirft ein Tuch auf’s Land” which means “the evening throws a blanket on the land” but it’s worth noting that even in the world of English-language poetry such imagery doesn’t quite work as well as it would at first seem and yet in German, understanding the nuances of grammar etc… it comes across as a beautiful way of describing night slowly unfolding across the countryside.

If there’s anything that would benefit a multi-cultural society such as that of Ireland most it would be an inherent ability to see the world from different points of view and being (at least) bilingual has this effect and it is rather striking in its power. The key point is also that bilingual is how we would be. English is the language of business throughout the Western world and many other parts of the world and as such it would be ludicrous to suggest that English would suddenly be abandoned in favour of Irish. Look to Germany or any of the Nordic countries, especially Sweden, and you come across an extremely high percentage of the population who speak remarkably good English as a matter of course and yet maintain their own solid native languages. The complaint in the above article by Frank Feighan that many people have spent their full time in school education learning Irish only to come away with only “cupla focal” (a few words) is specifically related to the fact that, outside of the Gaeltacht areas where irish is the native language as a rule and Gaelscoils (irish-speaking schools) there is nowhere in our modern society where routinely speak Irish as a matter of course and this is essential in creating fluency in any language.

In Ireland we have Radio na Gaeltachta, TG4 and the Gaeltacht areas and aside from this there really isn’t much for Irish speakers to interact with the world with through Irish. MTV is in English, the majority of news stations are in English, the majority of radio stations are in English etc… if Irish was our main language English language programming would be prized not just because it’s the most popular but also because it would be a great way for people to continually work their English skills. The reality of the situation when things are reversed is that a lot of people tend to ignore the Irish language media and entertainment opportunities in favour of the English language ones, ostensibly because they are the most popular that everyone else watches. In my own personal experience I’ve found watching my favourite shows in German to be both entertaining and productive from a language skills point of view but yet nothing compared to living in Germany where I was forced to deal with German nearly all of the time and English language programming was just not that common and despite this lack most German English is fantastic, so I have to ask why are we Irish so dead set on letting a great and beautiful language die out so easily without a fight?

To prove how awesome I think Irish is, I’ll leave you with a song written in Irish (by a German band, weirdly enough) that I think highlights the beauty of the language, it’s a story of a woman whose beloved goes out to sea and drowns and she sails out in her father’s boat to find him.


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