An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? Why is this is one of the most well-known Irish phrases? Because it had an essential use. Most teachers would only let you to go to the toilet in my primary school if you asked to go in Irish, or ‘as Gaeilge’. But why can we remember so little of the Irish language after we leave education? I argue that it is due to a lack of incentives.
There is no lack of government support for the Irish language. Irish is enshrined in the Constitution as our national language and is taught at schools as a mandatory subject to every Irish child for twelve years. Recently, as part of Ireland’s 2040 plan, it was decided to invest €178 million in the promotion of the Irish language.
What does a combination of government investment, twelve years of mandatory education and enshrinement in law produce in terms of Irish fluency? Sadly, the answer is very little.
According to the Central Statistics Office, in 2016 roughly 1.7 million people could understand some degree of Irish. This amounts to approximately 40% of the country’s population. This means that despite extensive time, effort and money, the majority of the country has little to no real understanding of Irish.
If all this effort results in 40% of the country vaguely understanding some degree of Irish, countrywide fluency could require investment of billions of euro.
Why, then, do these programs produce such lacklustre effects, and why do they not serve to increase our Gaeilgeoir population? Many assume that teachers are to blame. Apparently, they teach Irish poorly and if only they fixed their boring stuffy ways, we would have a flourishing population communicating naturally in their native tongue. This pessimistic view greatly underestimates the training, ability and passion of teachers.
By the time of the Leaving Certificate, the culminating examinations of an Irish school student’s career, many students are very capable. Many in higher level classes are near fluency.
However, this all changes after a few years out of school. What was formerly an A1 standard of Irish can quickly degrade to a basic grasp of the language at best. The problem is memory’s battle against time. School may allow some people to reach fluency, but over time the lack of practice and day-to-day use will chip away at their knowledge of Irish. Learning a language is not like riding a bike; one forgets without frequent practice.
Many advocates of keeping the Irish language alive constantly stress the importance of increasing funding. But the solution is not to throw heaps of money at the Irish language; rather, we should focus on changing the incentives to learn Irish.
I propose that money should go towards establishing a new annual Irish exam to test fluency. This exam could be taken by any adult in the country. Anyone who passes this exam could receive some form of reward, such as tax credits or a cash lump sum. The possibilities for reimbursement are endless, but the basic idea is to start rewarding people for learning Irish on a long-term basis.
Many people express regret that they have let their Irish speaking ability wane. But this is to be expected. The Leaving Certificate provides a real incentive to learn Irish, such as to gain points for college. But why continue rigorously to learn Irish if there is no benefit besides a selfless patriotism?
We cannot expect people to invest hours of their lives into learning something out of the goodness of their hearts. The Irish language is worth holding on to. But we cannot preserve it by implementing the same old policies, merely on a larger scale. We need innovation. Incentives drive the world, and they will be the key to reviving the Irish language.
To those who oppose this measure as impractical, I ask: could it be much worse than the current system?
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