Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Why the Irish education system is murdering our language

Sitting in a musty room overlooking the rain-drenched january streets of Cork, an opened book before me and a somewhat apprehensive face meeting my eyes at the other side of the table. I am teaching Irish for the dreaded Ardteistiméireacht. Realising the dismal state that secondary Irish education now finds itself in, a half-hearted caricature of language acquisition; or as someone once said, the inculcation of the impossible to the indifferent by the incompetent- I try to engage my student in trivial small talk as Gaeilge hoping that such tentative confabulation would generate sufficient interest to maintain our tremulous amity.

It's not that Irish is depressing or anything, it's just that the travesty of real learning disguised under copious notes perfunctorily swallowed by Ireland's leaving cert students, saps the 'spontaneous joy and natural content', as Yeats put it, from the hearts of our children, drying the cultural marrow of the nation and replacing it with a cancer of ignorance. And I am continually astonished by the level of ignorance that passes for linguistic competence.All over Ireland, leaving cert students are learning off reams of poetry, quotations from short stories of dubious merit, without being able to express their most basic concerns in the language. It is an open secret. We all did it. I look at a copy book of one student and see essay's reasonably well-written, grammatical exercises completed satisfactorily and letters written without too many errors, yet the same student is not able to form one sentence in the language, nor understand the most basic chunk of syntax. But he is one of many.

Let's face it, the Irish revival project under the aegis of An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta has failed. It is over. It will not improve nor does it deserve to. It is a disgrace and a smug obfuscation of the aims and aspirations of the cultural idealists who fought for national self-determination. As I speak the Government are attacking one of the last havens of propror Irish language instruction,Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne in Kerry for speaking the language too much! I know, it is perverse, and despicably so.

As it stands, mainstream Irish education in this country is a waste of time. Should we then abandon the language, abandon this umbilical cord that binds us to one of the world's richest and most mysterious cultures? Of course not. But the leaving cert syllabis needs to be scrapped. We need to start again. We need drama, role-play, continuous assessment based on interviews, rigorous oral Irish training for teachers, a national educational programme that would provide incentives for schools willing to make the language a living medium of communication inside and outside the classroom.

Instead the Government routinely refuses to supply the most meagre funding or State support to the Gaelscoileanna movement. We need schools where teachers show example by being heard converse as Gaeilge to each other in the corridors and on the sports fields. We need to make the assessment process 80 percent oral. We need inspectors making regular checks on schools, university students perhaps, who could engage students in conversation in the playgrounds as part of their leaving cert examinations. Extra curricular activities through Irish have to be the order of the day. What would happen then?

Irish would become popular, drama activities through Irish would inspire people to consider acting, perhaps in TG4. Why not make the writin of plays as Gaeilge one module of the leaving cert syllabis? Activities performed through Irish would make the subject both easy and enjoyable. The language would become a means of expression again, and would be viewed and the leaving certs results would improve drastically with more people opting of the honours courses. We would then be on our way to a meaning form of diglossia or even pure bilingualism. The murder machine that is the Irish language education system would be decommisioned once and for all, and verbs, adjectives, perpositions and nouns coughed up apathetically in state exams, would begin to signify once again, ensconsing us inextricably with the cultural landscape of the past but more importantly projecting us onto a new plateau of cultural possibility, giving us another way of being, another way of creating the future.

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