Irish is a language spoken in the Republic of Ireland, an Island on the European continental shelf. It is a national language and is considered as the first official language of Ireland in accordance with Article 8 of the Constitution of Ireland. English is the second official language, however that is not exactly the reality on the ground because majority of Irish cannot speak Irish. Currently, it is compulsory to learn Irish from the age of 4 until high school. All students in Primary and Secondary level schools are required to study Irish unless they have been granted a Certificate of Exemption from the study of rish. Furthermore, learners will learn the language for 13 years so that they will be able to use it afterwards. The final examination is 60% written, 40% oral and memorising 6 poems by heart in Irish.
In Ireland, there are students who attended Gaelscoil schools, they acquired the Irish language through language immersion and study the standard curriculum through it and some attend English medium schools. According to statistics, Gaelsscoileanna unlike English medium schools, have the reputation of producing competent Irish speakers. English medium schools, in contrast, produce relatively few Irish speakers, despite the Irish language being an obligatory subject in the Republic of Ireland in both primary and secondary schools. However, this is where the problem of negative attitude towards learning Irish is emanating from. This paper is designed to explore the factors affecting student attitude towards the Irish language in post-primary schools.
Background of Irish language
In the 1820s education at the elementary level was a major battleground between Protestant evangelicals and the Catholic Church. The foundation of the national school system came about because of Catholic opposition. A state system of primary education was introduced in 1831 and one of its main aims was the teaching of English. Children were strongly discouraged from speaking Irish. Irish language, history, heritage and games did not find a place in the curriculum. The « tally stick » was introduced into classrooms. Children attending school had to wear a stick on a piece of string around their necks. Each time they used Irish, a notch was cut into stick. At the end of the day, they would be punished according to how many notches they had on their stick. Irish was omitted from the system until 1878, and only added as a curiosity, to be learnt after English, Latin, Greek and French. O’ Brien (2019) states that the policy of compulsory Irish was introduced in 1934.
« In recognising the linguistic, social and cultural importance of Irish and English in Ireland, both languages are included as core subjects in the national curricula for recognised primary and secondary level schools and centres for education in Ireland » - Minister of Education (2022).
The Curriculum Strands
The teaching and learning content of the Irish curriculum is outlined in four main strands: listening, speaking, reading and writing. The listening and speaking strands constitute the curriculum for the infant and junior classes. The middle and senior classes students are obliged to master all the elements and pupils receptive / expressive language skills are developed through all four strands (Inspectorate 2007). The curriculum objectives describe the learning experiences of the pupils. These specific objectives clarify the skills that pupils will develop in each of the four strands. All four strands are further subdivided into three strands namely :
- a. Developing an interest in language
- b. Using language and
- c. Understanding language.
Why students have negative attitude towards learning Irish in High schools in Ireland?
Perceived difficulty of Irish
In general, pupils learning Irish language perceive the language as very difficult. Smyth et al (2016) underpins that there is some variation by social background. With young people whose mothers have tertiary education more likely to describe Irish as not difficult and much less likely to view it as difficult. This is mostly affecting students who learn in English-medium school. They perceive Irish as difficult. As with interest in Irish, the quality of teacher-student interaction is highly associated with the perceived difficulty of Irish (Smyth et al 2016). Moreover, new research carried by the ?ESRI has found that Irish in post-primary education is considered to be among the hardest and least interesting of subjects, with more and more students getting exemptions. A total number of almost 32 000 students are exempt from the Irish language in secondary schools. Some students exempted from Irish language because of learning difficulties are actually taking other languages. This clearly reveals that the exemption system is not fair. It is likely that these students are lying in order to be exempted from Irish because they think the language is too difficult. This negative attitude is emanating from the fact that learners think Irish is not an important language as long as they speak English.
Teachers language ability
Students have negative attitude towards learning Irish because of the teachers inability to speak the language. Students learn Irish for 13 years but after all those years, a very small proportion can speak the language fluently. The language is taught through Irish but the spoken language is inaccurate and the pronunciation is poor. It is difficult for teachers to motivate students especially when they are struggling with the language in front of students. This makes students lose interest in learning Irish language. According to the evaluation conducted by the Inspectors in Ireland schools on the oral language ability of the teachers, 30% of the teachers had a poor level of spoken Irish, 20% had only a fair ability to speak Irish, 55% had a satisfactory standard of Irish and 22% had a high standard of Irish. However, with such statistics, it is not easy for students to be motivated to learn the teachers especially when people they look up to are facing challenges with the subject.
Lack of motivation
« Motivation is one of the most important elements in the process of second/ foreign language learning » ( Hsuan Yau 2013).
Learning a language which is not spoken at home is not an easy task, it requires determination and hard work. Irish learners are not motivated enough in learning Irish hence negative attitudes. Gardner (2001),
Motivation includes three elements : effort (the effort to learn the language), desire (wanting to achieve a goal) and positive affect (enjoy the task of learning the language). Irish students are not motivated to learn Irish because they think it is not important since they already speak English. It is the role of parents to motivate their children but the research shows that this lack of motivation is coming from parents. National sociolinguistic survey 1973-2001 outlines what some parents think towards learning Irish as a compulsory subject:
« Irish should be gotten rid of and forgotten," « If you try to coerce anybody to do anything, particularly the Irish, you know what happens- they say no », « Irish should be preserved as a spoken language, but only in the Gaeltacht ».
Time allocated to the teaching of Irish language was 2 hours per week before but now the Ministry of Education reduced the allocation time with 30 minutes. Irish is a minority language and already it is not spoken often. Learners only have the exposure of Irish language in the classroom, outside, it is just English and 1 hour 30 minutes is not enough for students to master all the skills : reading, speaking, listening and writing. Learners have negative attitude towards Irish due to the fact that the language is not given equal hours like other core subjects. This only makes students think the language is not important.
The Ministry of Education should explore other avenues in order to motivate students to learn Irish language :
- Greater emphasis should be put on oral skills so that learners will be able to use the language fluently in their professional and day to day lives.
- Opportunities to speak the language could be provided by heritage clubs and various extra curricular activities using Irish language.
- These clubs could be shared between schools and they could use the medium of Irish for their activities in order to promote the language
- Offering Irish as an optional subject across different types of schools in Ireland, could be used to provide choice for students.
- Students and parents need to be educated more on opportunities which comes with being fluent in Irish.
- Increasing opportunities within schools outside of the classroom may encourage young people to use the language more frequently.
Negative attitude towards learning Irish language have an impact on the learners behaviour and there should be an initiative to fix this problem. It is actually a pandemic that need to be dealt with, Irish being the 4th minority language in the European Union should be used as a tool to motivate students. Most jobs in Ireland require people who actually speak the language, this shows how important Irish language has become. The number of « New Speakers » is on the rise as well, being able to speak Irish will save the language from extinction.