Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bilingualism in a bi-polar society

Irish language media took a blow this month with the news that Foinse, the Irish language weekly newspaper, was to be taken out of circulation due to financial difficulties. Nevertheless Irish academia published a positive report last week concerning the advantages of bilingual education in Ireland. The research was carried out by Dr. Judith Wylie and Dr. Gerry Mulhern from Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Psychology. The school’s research concerns the cognitive development of children educated in Irish medium schools in Northern Ireland. The cognitive advantages shown in Irish medium schools were particularly striking in the areas of short-term memory and working memory. According to Dr Wylie “Short memory and working memory are centrally important in all learning, indeed everyday tasks such as reading, reasoning and mental arithmetic rely heavily on these processes. Using standardised tests of verbal and visual memory, our research compared
groups of children from Irish-medium schools with children from the more usual English-only schools in Northern Ireland “ .

The Irish language revival movement has proved to be particularly strong throughout nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. But there was also been a significant increase shown among Ulster Protestants in the Irish language and heritage. The divide and rule policy of British imperialism in the North has often led to a warped view of Irish identity on both sides of the political divide. The Irish language is too often seen as an instrument of Irish nationalism, a way for Northern nationalists to dissociate themselves from the hegemony of British culture in the province. In many respects this is true. But there is a significant number of nationalists in the north who are deeply cognisant of the importance of Protestantism to Irish language heritage. After all, the Bible was first translated into Irish by a Protestant clergyman William Bedel in the 17th century . Queen Elizabeth herself showed a healthy curiosity in Irish. She even asked Christopher Nugent the Baron of County Westmeath to provide her with an Irish primer! The Presbyterian clergyman William Nielson was a champion of the language writing a grammar and phrase book to encourage learning of the language among his congregation. In fact, a significant number of the original Scottish planters in Ulster were Gaelic speakers. The language, then, is as most a feature of unionist Ulster as it is of nationalist Ireland.

There was, of course, a significant number of Protestant nationalists too who contributed to the revival of Irish, Douglas Hyde being the most obvious example. A survey done by Smith and Robinson in 1991 revealed that 23 percent of Northern Irish Protestants believe that Irish should be a compulsory subject in schools. This is surprisingly high given the level of cultural confusion that exists among Northern Ireland’s divided communities. There have, however, been pockets of Irish learners among Ulster’s protestants, most notably, a group of female Irish learners in the staunchly loyalist Shankill( Sean Cille- Old Church) Road. The Unionist politician Chris McGimpsey is a speaker of Irish and the Irish language daily Lá featured regular columns from the Unionist writer Ian Malcolm.
According to Dr. Reamaí Mathers of Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta

“This groundbreaking work adds further evidence to the increasingly indisputable body of good science that shows that children
who are educated in Irish-medium schools are not only receiving the benefit of two languages but are also receiving tangible educational advantages. Earlier this year, Key Stage 2 assessments (Primary 7),which focus on the areas of English and maths, demonstrated that for the last three years attainment in Irish-medium education has been higher than the Northern Ireland average. What the Queen’s research provides is a deeper insight into the mechanisms at work in the superior performance by Irish-medium children when compared to the more usual English
language schools.”

There is a compelling case for Irish medium education in this country North and South. When one considers the diverse and often paradoxical ideologies that promoted the language throughout our history, it does not seem impossible that Northern Ireland could yet become the leading province promoting Gaelic culture in these Islands.

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