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Identifier et catégoriser les langues minoritaires en Europe

Joan Busquets
Sébastien Platon
Alain Viaut

Contextes et images sociales des langues minoritaires

Language Policy and Minority Languages in the Republic of Ireland

Politique linguistique et langues minoritaires dans la République d’Irlande

Miriam Broderick


L’idée commune selon laquelle l’anglais suffirait pour communiquer à l’international est un frein à la promotion du plurilinguisme. En tant que pays anglophone, l’Irlande n’échappe pas à ce phénomène. Cependant, avec l’irlandais comme langue nationale et la diversité linguistique et culturelle qu’apporte une immigration récente et constante, il devient urgent de développer des politiques linguistiques prenant en compte l’ensemble des langues parlées en Irlande.
À partir de constats des réalités linguistiques du pays, confrontées aux terminologies différenciatrices et aux législations en vigueur, l’auteure propose des aménagements des politiques linguistiques éducatives, réussissant à réunir les problématiques de l’irlandais et celles d’autres langues en situation minoritaire en Irlande (langues de migrants principalement). Faire de l’enseignement des langues une priorité des politiques éducatives constituerait une avancée majeure. Face aux attitudes négatives envers l’apprentissage des langues, il convient de faire prendre conscience de l’importance de la compétence plurilingue. Afin de garantir un enseignement de qualité, il faut fusionner les méthodes d’enseignement des langues et les nombreux dispositifs séparés selon les catégories de langues enseignées. Utiliser la méthode CLIL en situation d’éducation « bilingue » permettrait aussi une intégration meilleure et plus rapide des enfants pour qui l’anglais est langue seconde.

Texte intégral

1Most EU countries have well developed policies on languages, an economic imperative due to the relentless success of English in the global economy, cultural and political fields. This success however is a disadvantage for English speaking countries where the learning, promotion and use of second or foreign languages (FLs) is constantly challenged, as “English is enough”. In Ireland, where English is the mother tongue of the majority, and the second language of bilinguals, frequent campaigns have been mounted to encourage investment in languages and to promote their value and benefits in the face of this attitude.

2Eurobarometer and other European surveys of foreign language competence have recently put Ireland in last place (RIA 2011). This contrasts sharply with the multicultural character of contemporary Ireland, where state agencies now issue information in 30 languages or more, and where streets in many towns are multilingual. In this environment the development of a languages policy is seen as essential. Various groups are seeking a long-term commitment from government to improving Ireland’s capacity in languages and to ensuring a more relevant language learning experience in schools.

The need for a broader picture in language policy: Irish in a multicultural society

3Economic imperative and the strong lobby promoting science has resulted in an informed public, generous investment in science activities and an improved position in schools, including its adoption as core in the primary school curriculum. Various strategy groups achieved the creation of Science Foundation Ireland which partners in developments such as science programmes on radio and TV and science correspondents in newspapers—there is no similar opportunity for linguists to engage with the public on the importance of languages.

4Linguists too, have lobbied and campaigned nationally, have received support from international linguists and increasingly from employers, but have achieved only short-term gains—schemes and initiatives, which, due to economic restrictions, may soon end. On his recent appointment, the new Minister for the Department of Education and Skills (DES) announced that foreign languages were “mostly off the agenda”. Explaining that the current focus in education is now on literacy, he said “English is the language of commerce and we expect people in Europe to speak English”. Yet employers, leaders of business and industry, and the Higher Education Authority (HEA 2013) have supported the call for a language policy, greater diversity and improved levels of attainment in languages.

5The Centre for Information on Language Teaching offers a practical definition of language policy: “it is a means by which a government sets out its intention to safeguard, develop, exploit the capacity in languages” (CILT 2009), i.e. it refers to all languages and all areas of society. CILT recognises that policies are aspirations and may be supported or frustrated by other policy developments. So, does Ireland have a ‘language policy’ in that sense?

6Ó Riagáin (2008: 56) refers to ‘Ireland’s Irish language policy’ and the Council of Europe (CoE) notes “there has never been an official language policy as regards the English language” (2008: 70). The Constitution, legislation and initiatives for the Irish language are therefore generally understood to be Ireland’s language policy. Many believe Ireland now needs a policy which is all-encompassing, especially for education, includes all languages and all levels, and is designed to meet all the language needs of a fast changing society.

7Ireland’s population was relatively homogenous until increasing wealth and industrial activity brought immigration and rapid demographic change over less than ten years. The 2011 census confirms that there are people from over 188 different ethnic backgrounds with 60 or more languages in Ireland and that the ‘new Irish’ are mainly concentrated in urban areas, especially Dublin and surroundings. The cities of Cork and Limerick recorded a reduced population, probably due to emigration, but County Cork has above 500.000 inhabitants for the first time since the Famine of the 1840s. An expected population drop due to the economic situation has not occurred and the preliminary results from the 2011 census show that migrants are still coming to Ireland—40.000 in 2010 and in 2011. The preliminary figure for the ‘newcomer’ population is 10%-11% of a total population of almost 4.6 million and a language policy would have to take account of their needs and also of changes and the population decrease in the Gaeltacht areas (CSO 2011).

National and European legal discourse: ambiguity and contradictions in terminology

“Reinstating” the Irish language?

8From the founding of the State in 1921, the aim of language policy in Ireland was understood to be the restoration of Irish to its original position as mother tongue of the population. The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in launching the Statement on the Irish Language (Taoiseach Ahern 2006), declared that the aim of 20th century government policies had been “to reinstate Irish as the main language spoken”, but now it was “the practical development of a bilingual society where as many people as possible use both Irish and English with equal ease”. Ó Riagáin presents a different view: “the constitutional and legislative positions” do not suggest that anything other than the establishment of a bilingual state”, so revival was not the objective (2008: 55). For Titley, Irish was an “abandoned language” (2004: 17). Nonetheless, there was an initial belief that it could be revived, but commitment was not strong enough: “While national schools did their best, the secondary system was more tepid and third level turned the other cheek” (2004: 17).

9Ó Tuathaigh (2008) believes: “By the early 1950s the State’s principal objectives were being articulated in new terms, strongly focused on economic performance and improved living standards” and from then onwards these objectives influenced “state language policy” also. By the late 1950s, there was “considerable activity and innovation, but with little sign of clarity or coherence in enunciating state language policy” (2008: 26). It is generally believed that for the last 60 to 80 years state support was often a ‘token’ or ceremonial use of the Irish language, leaving it to the school system to achieve the desired outcome of revival.

The ambiguous status of Irish in legislation

10The special status conferred on Irish in the constitution has been reaffirmed in many documents and policy statements since and, quite recently, for example, in the Education Act (1998), the Planning and Development Act (2000) and the Official Languages Act (2003). It is interesting to note the implication of Irish and English terms used in the constitution. The Constitution of the Irish Free State Act 1922, Article 4, (1936 version: 34), states: “Irish is the national language of the Irish Free State, but the English language shall be equally recognised as an official language”.

11The Constitution of 1937 however juxtaposes English and Irish, stating that (Art. 8: 6-7):

  1. The Irish language as the national language is the first official language. (Ós í an Ghaeilge an teanga náisiúnta is í an phríomtheanga oifigiúil í.)
  2. The English language is recognised as a second official language. (Glactar leis an Sacs-Bhéarla mar theanga oifigiúil eile).

12The English version in 2 uses the term “second official language”, but the Irish version uses the term “eile”, which means other official language, thus conferring less status than in the English version! The term “príomhtheanga” used in 1 implies ‘the principle/main’ language and thus confers greater status. The Constitution has been cited in a number of successful court cases to reaffirm the pre-eminent position of Irish. The government has commenced a review of the Constitution.

13The issue of ‘equality’ of the two languages arose in relation to the Languages Act. It is “to promote the use of Irish for official purposes in the state; to provide for the use of both official languages of the state in parliamentary proceedings…” (8). Crowley (2005: 164) reports that the original title of The Languages Act, as presented to the parliament (Dáil), was: Billa na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Comhionannas)/ The Official Languages Equality Bill. It had to be changed and the term ‘equality’ had to be removed from the title, as in the Constitution, Irish and English are not equal.

14Irish is in a somewhat unique position. In 2007 it was granted official and working language status in the EU and its legislative position as the national and first official language should indicate a very strong position in society. It is the indigenous language of Ireland and although spoken daily only by a small percentage of the population, it is still valued by most citizens as part of their culture and heritage and is generally respected for this symbolic and historic value. Although it is now the mother tongue of 5% or less of the population, it is strongly supported by the state and by regulations which make it a compulsory school subject throughout primary and secondary education, although this is increasingly challenged.

15The European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML) defines minority or regional languages as those used traditionally within a given territory of a state by nationals of that state who form a group smaller than the rest of the state’s population, but does not include the languages of migrants. Irish itself does not fit easily here, as minority languages are not expected to be the official ones! The EU Commission supported a project on Celtic, Regional and Minority Languages Abroad (CRAMLAP) developed a definition: “Regional and minority languages are defined as official national languages spoken by a minority of citizens in the country… or non-official regional languages spoken within a country” ( which suits Irish, as it is ‘official’ and has strong legislative support. Ireland has not yet ratified the ECRML, although the UK did so, both for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Minority rights: but for which language or minority?

16In the Irish context, the terms ‘minority language’ or ‘minority rights’ are generally used to refer to the Irish language and Irish speakers only, and existing language policy, as noted above, refers to Irish. The context is changing and other groups are claiming this status. In summer 2011 the Minister for Justice stated that the government is considering granting ‘ethnic minority’ status to the Traveller community, something which has been sought for many years. It is not clear what rights this status would confer, for example, on their language, Shelta or Cant. Promoters of Irish Sign Language (ISL) have also campaigned for years for ‘minority language’ status, considering ‘this recognition as a fundamental human right’, especially since ISL was given official recognition in Northern Ireland under the Belfast Agreement. Recent EU policies and proposals on linguistic diversity, multilingualism and migrants’ home languages among others, have encouraged other groups in Ireland to seek improved status for languages they consider as deserving of ‘minority’ status and support-at least in the school context. These include home languages and English for migrants. The changing population means the Polish community is now the largest ethnic group and it is sometimes suggested that Ireland now has as many Polish mother tongue speakers as Irish!

17Romaine (2008: 13) suggests that trends in the EU, such as the increasing use of English in technical areas and in university courses, are seen as a threat even by speakers of ‘major’ languages such as French and German. She claims “increasing bilingualism… particularly English, is making the majority of the world’s languages in effect minority languages”. The Council of Europe (CoE) report (2008: 13) referred to migrants’ children as from “ethnic or cultural minorities”, which would, in certain definitions, allow them to claim certain rights and protection for their ‘minority languages’. Language planning in Ireland has to take account of the new demographic situation as well as the evolving economic, social and political realities of the country.

Policy threads on the ground for the Irish language: the internal picture or poster?

The population and knowledge of Irish

18The census of 1851, some years after the Great Famine, established that approximately 25% of the population spoke Irish, with a higher percentage of the older population and a much lower one for young children. Preliminary results from the 2011 census (CSO 2011) confirm a population of almost 4.6 million, an increase of over 8% in the five years since the 2006 census. This is surprising, given the numbers leaving Ireland each month to seek work abroad. It implies a continuing, if reduced, inflow of immigrants. The statistics relating to the use of Irish in 2011 are not yet available. The 2006 census results (CSO 2006) indicated over 40% of the population claiming competence in Irish, but below 3% estimated to use it on a daily basis. This is line with the view of the eminent linguist, Spolsky (2006) who, in examining language policy in various European countries, stated: “A century of politically-backed and government efforts to revitalize Irish has succeeded only in increasing knowledge but not use of the language” (p. 2163). Recent initiatives have therefore been developed to create opportunities for the use of Irish outside the school setting.

The Gaeltacht today

19In the past the main focus in revitalisation efforts was on the Gaeltacht. There are three main Irish-speaking areas on the western seaboard and some smaller ones in the south and the midlands, and these areas are officially designated the Gaeltacht, so there is not a single geographic continuum or region where Irish is the first language. They are mainly rural areas. There are three main dialects which have equal status, each being used in a particular region. These are frequently referred to as ‘the vernacular’ and officially, more usually, as ‘the community language’, a term which elsewhere, especially in Britain, designates the mother tongues of immigrant communities. The three dialects were considered when in 1958 an official written standard in spelling and grammar (An Caighdeán Oifigiúil) was developed. This is used for written communication. Only minor revisions were undertaken over the years. However, a major review commenced in 2011 with an invitation to the public, as well as to official bodies, to give their views on any aspects of the standard, from grammar and syntax to terminology.

20Although Irish was both the ‘home language’ and ‘school language’ for most people in the Gaeltacht, these areas are now largely bilingual in Irish and English. Recent research and studies have established that there is a continual decline in the number of Irish speakers who speak it on a daily basis and a decline in family use also (DCRGA 2007; COGG 2005). Industrialisation, returning emigrants, tourism, those coming in to work and the media are listed as the main reasons for fairly rapid change. Already in 1984, Harris (2002, 2004) reported his finding that nearly half of the primary school pupils, for whom language transmission was inter-generational, did not speak Irish outside the schools, which are Irish-medium. Other studies discussed below, also note this trend. Financial incentives are provided for the families who provide accommodation for the thousands of schoolchildren travelling to the Gaeltacht to attend summer courses. This is to ensure only Irish is spoken in these homes.

21From 1956 the Gaeltacht was classified as A, B, or C category areas in order to indicate the percentage of the population who were daily speakers of Irish. In that year the Department of the Gaeltacht was established “to promote the cultural, social and economic welfare of the Gaeltacht” and to advise on “issues which concern the national aim of restoring the Irish language” (DCRGA 2007: 8). There was concern at the time at the decrease in the use of Irish and uncertainty about the effectiveness of government schemes. Different statutory definitions have been used in various Acts and State schemes and responsibility for the Gaeltacht was divided between different State departments and organisations. “These arrangements fostered a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty with regard to the spatial extent of the Gaeltacht.” (8) and “the various conceptualisations of the Gaeltacht therefore cover a broad spectrum, ranging from areas where Irish is the main community language to those where it is spoken mainly in schools and among some of the community – so the word Gaeltacht had different meanings at different points in history” (9). The authors point out that even where use is low, people generally want Gaeltacht status, as it fosters a ‘Gaeltacht identity’. They attribute the continuing shift to English to ‘social dynamics’ (10).

22There were very significant developments in 2007 which have had a major influence on policy. It was a year when facts and statistics were published which painted a bleak picture of the evolving language situation in the Gaeltacht. There were positive developments too. At the start of that year, Irish became the twenty-first official and working language of the EU and this brought with it new employment opportunities. A Comprehensive Linguistic Survey of the Gaeltacht (DCRGA 2007), a report and survey undertaken by the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (DCRGA) revealed some hard facts about a shrinking Gaeltacht and pupils’ use of Irish outside school. It concluded that prospects for the future of Irish were negative, unless an action plan was implemented rapidly. These findings and those of other recent reports were considered thoroughly and a range of follow-up measures and actions were developed. In the past the state had been accused of little or no follow-up, implementation or evaluation of legislative developments. It had been presumed that if Irish was to be the language of the school, it followed that it would be the language of the streets and society! That survey showed this was not the case, even in the Gaeltacht. In 2010 and 2011, pupil numbers in Irish-medium schools around the country continued to increase but the use of Irish outside school was weak, indicating that Irish faced a very challenging situation throughout the country.

23In June 2011, the government announced the publication of a bill which was to contain a new statutory definition of the Gaeltacht based on linguistic criteria and not geographical area, as was previously the case. Henceforth, to gain Gaeltacht status, two thirds of the community had to use Irish on a daily basis and it must predominate in social and institutional domains. Even churches, sports clubs and businesses should be Irish speaking and the schools must be Irish-medium. This now means the new areas will be small. To support them a number of towns ‘which service Gaeltacht areas’ will be granted new statutory status. A new type of ‘network Gaeltacht’, mainly in urban areas, which have ‘a critical mass of support from community and the State’ are also to be developed. Clondalkin, a suburb of west Dublin, has already mobilised the local community to seek the new designation! The bill (GoI 2012) largely incorporates the priorities outlined in the 20-Year Strategy and is based on the recommendations in the Comprehensive Linguistic Study (DCRGA 2007). The newly named Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, will thus “work closely with Gaeltacht communities on the ground in order to assist them in developing and implementing language plans, which will incorporate all aspects of community life”- Programme for Government (GoI 2008: 18). In the past the government has been criticised for a lack of supportive action. The planned cooperation is aimed at ensuring effective partnerships with communities.

Responsibilities and future action: a policy relying heavily on the education system

24The main policies introduced from the foundation of the State to secure the revival of Irish included teaching Irish at all school levels, promoting Irish-medium schools, making a pass compulsory in school state examinations, requiring proficiency in Irish for most positions in the civil service, preparatory colleges to prepare native speakers for entry to teacher training colleges, teacher training, promotion of Irish language broadcasting and the standardisation of the language and availability of Irish classes in the civil service to build capacity. The main policy focus for the future is also on education. The Programme for Government 2007-2013 undertakes to promote Irish through improved teacher training, a reform of the curriculum and by placing greater emphasis on oral skills. A scholarship scheme for Gaeltacht courses is planned for children from disadvantaged areas. In a section dealing with the Irish language and the Gaeltacht, there is an undertaking to further develop the plan “for the growth in the use of Irish and in bilingualism” (GoI 2007: 20). The government plans as laid out in the Programme indicate for the first time consultation and cooperation across government departments and a commitment to fund the practical actions proposed.

25A number of existing state agencies which promoted Irish in a variety of ways, such as Bord na Gaeilge, were incorporated into Foras na Gaeilge, a new North-South body created under the Belfast Agreement (1998) which has responsibility for strategy development throughout Ireland, except for the Gaeltacht. Údarás na Gaeltachta, a development agency, is to survive in its present form. Despite the view that there was over-concentration on attracting enterprise and employment, its remit will continue to be regional development - economic, social and cultural, but it will have an enhanced role in the promotion of Irish. Údarás has started to promote the arts in partnership with the Arts Council and to improve Irish language community-based youth services for school-going children. This indicates immediate and varied action and a concern to engage students and pupils in activities which ensure they speak Irish outside the school – the weak link in the promotion of Irish.

26Following on the new legislation, action plans continue to be developed very rapidly. Údarás na Gaeltachta, in partnership with the DRCGA, produced Gaeilge 2010, an innovative set of support measures for adults (2010). Within a year of announcing over 30 Irish language learning and activity centres for Gaeltacht areas, 28 are in operation and 60 teachers have completed training courses. The centres are equipped with ICT and other resources to help adults revive and extend their Irish. Other actions range from increased support for Irish language pre-schools (náonraí) to assisting companies in implementing Irish in the workplace. As signalled by the government in the Strategy, many of the proposals require extensive inter-departmental cooperation, and major resources have been committed to ensuring that the new measures will be integrated. Funding has also been made available for universities abroad to support courses in the Irish language or Irish Studies programmes.

Irish and schooling in the Gaeltacht

27There are 107 primary and 21 post primary-schools in the Gaeltacht, all but one deliver Irish-medium education. The Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta (COGG - a body for Irish-medium education) was established in 2002 to provide support to these schools. It published research findings (COGG 2005) which indicated a continual decline in pupil numbers in Gaeltacht primary schools over the last ten to twelve years and the small size of the majority of primary schools, which have, on average, one to three teachers. The principals reported great difficulty in recruiting or replacing teachers. The situation in post-primary schools was even more problematic according to the study, as teaching through the medium of Irish ‘is in a state of crisis’, especially in the schools situated outside ‘strong Gaeltacht areas’. Among the reasons given for this situation is a serious dearth of specialised and appropriate textbooks and materials in Irish, especially for the upper classes preparing for the final school examination. This is a factor in the increasing use of English as a medium of instruction in post-primary schools. The pupils’ background also creates difficulties as 9% live outside ‘the officially designated Gaeltacht’ and as many as 26% were born or lived outside it prior to enrolling in a Gaeltacht school or to their families returning to Ireland from abroad. The home language of returning emigrants is frequently English. Teachers find it difficult to maintain an immersion approach due to pupils’ varying levels of attainment in Irish.

28The COGG study (2005) states: a new and ‘broader language planning strategy’ is necessary for school-going pupils in the Gaeltacht. The study established that most primary pupils speak English in all their activities outside of school. They therefore propose a strategy which includes the establishment of a youth service in Gaeltacht areas, to promote leisure and cultural activities, as this would ‘assist in maintaining the use of Irish amongst Gaeltacht school children’. This proposal, suggested in other reports also, has been adopted in the Strategy and put into action. As mentioned in various studies and reports, there is concern about the standard achieved in Irish at primary and secondary level and the increasing use of English generally in the Gaeltacht. An earlier study carried out by ITÉ throughout Ireland, had already found great differences between passive knowledge and frequent or daily use of Irish among schoolchildren. There were positive attitudes, but not correlated to use, despite 12 or 13 years spent learning Irish at school. The department commissioned a major study of language use in the Gaeltacht (DCRGA 2007) to establish the present status of Irish and to examine views and recommendations contained in various reports, as the basis for the development of a strategy to follow up on the Statement on the Irish Language (GoI 2006).

29The Irish-speaking pre-school movement (náonraí) is growing fast both inside and outside the Gaeltacht, developed by a parents’ and supporters’ network. The Náonraí in the Gaeltacht receive further financial support under the Languages Act, as they aim to ensure children entering primary education are linguistically prepared, whatever their parents’ level in Irish, thus helping to maintain Irish as the community language. The voluntary organisation which runs them organises training courses for the teachers and also promotes and sells Irish language books and materials for children.

30The Pisa Report findings on literacy had resulted in a ruling from the DES (2007) that all Irish-medium primary schools must spend a minimum of 30 minutes per day on English. However, two years of campaigning and a court case by the schools and various supporters who want total immersion for the first years in Irish-medium schools, resulted in it being revoked, indicating the short-term nature of policy decisions.

Gaelscoileanna and parent choice

31Unlike the situation in most European countries, over 90% of the schools in Ireland are privately owned and most are under the patronage of religious groups, each with its own board of management. Gaelscoileanna are the Irish-medium schools outside the Gaeltacht. Situated throughout Ireland, they represent a strong and growing movement set up by parent groups and their supporters with help from voluntary bodies, as in the case of the náonraí. The number of pupils has increased steadily each year. Originally primary schools only, there are now 140 primary schools and 38 post-primary schools in the Republic. The Greater Dublin area, with a population of about 39% of the total population of Ireland, has 31 schools and almost eight thousand pupils. The stated objective is “to establish and maintain a high standard of Irish-medium education… as well as to develop and strengthen the Irish speaking community and culture”. To this end, they also provide evening classes in Irish for parents and the public, and the pupils are encouraged to participate in a wide range of Irish language national events. In August 2011, a plan for 17 new secondary schools to be opened by 2014 was outlined, due to an increasing demand from parents who believe in the ethos of these schools.

32Within a relatively short time 205 naíonraí have been set up outside the Gaeltacht. Clearly both school movements are thriving and well supported by a parents’ movement, many of whom are not Irish-speaking. The gaelscoileanna received some special exemptions from DES regulations, including an advantageous pupil-teacher ratio. However, in 2011 the DES decided to bring the pupil-teacher ratio into line with that of English-medium schools. The coordinating body of the gaelscoileanna launched a campaign “Protect the PTR” to oppose this, considering it very detrimental to attaining its linguistic goals and calling it “a complete dilution of the effectiveness of the immersion experience for the pupil” (Education Matters 2011).

English language support in schools for immigrant children and new ‘home language’ recognition

33Educate Together is another parent-driven organisation which initiated an alternative school type. The first school was established in 1978. In recent years there has been growing interest in their multi-denominational and intercultural ethos. There are now over 60 primary schools which, like the gaelscoileanna, obtained recognition from DES (sometimes after startup) and work under the same regulations and funding structures as other schools. In line with their culturally inclusive policy, they offer strong English language support to ‘newcomers’ and have a policy of facilitating pupils “to maintain a connection with their own culture and language”. These are the only schools with the stated aim of supporting immigrants’ home languages.

Recent positive signs: Irish language media development; corpus research; fresh legislation and implementation of Irish language ‘rights’; translation services

34The profile and social status of the Irish language have grown among young people with the increasing popularity of Irish language media, especially TG4, an Irish language television channel which started in 1996. It has a core audience of about 100.000, but reaches about 700.000 homes each day as, on average, over 300.000 watch live coverage of sport. The viewer figures are high, due to the sports coverage and a very successful soap drama in Irish. It has a reputation as an innovative station which supports independent Irish productions. While many native speakers are critical of aspects such as the level and quality of language used, young people are attracted to the contemporary topics and creative programmes. It broadcasts some English language programmes with sub-titles. A recent innovative development to promote Irish among young children is an Irish application developed by the graphics department to encourage them to start speaking Irish early. It combines the teaching of basic words with colourful images which are downloadable to iPhones and iPads.

35Raidió na Gaeltachta, on the other hand, is an Irish language station for the Gaeltacht community, reporting mainly local events. It is aimed at native speakers and the language level is demanding. There is also an Irish language radio station broadcasting out of Dublin – Raidió na Life (Liffey radio). Raidió Rí-Rá is a chart station broadcasting only in Irish and run by young broadcasters who target school and college students. They visit schools around the country giving students the chance to debate and express their views on air. The influence of English on Irish language broadcasting out of Dublin is often criticised by native speakers. As the number of native speakers is declining, there will no doubt be a growing acceptance of new varieties developing in urban areas which have experienced rapid socio-economic development and are heavily influenced by the global English language media. Under the Programme for Government (2008) the DRCGA committed further funding to State broadcasting “for increased Irish Language programming” and also to the main English language body, RTÉ to add more radio and TV broadcasts in Irish. This has ensured a greater use of Irish in general broadcasting and an increasing recognition of the role of the media in the maintenance of Irish.

36Many Irish language newspapers were threatened with closure, but the survival rate of larger ones has been good. The weekly Foinse, on the verge of closure, forged a novel partnership which allows it to go out free each week to a large readership in the Irish Independent newspaper. There has been consistent but modest funding for literature and translation of Irish works from government funded agencies, and for new publishing houses also. Translation of contemporary Irish literature into major European languages receives some support from foreign cultural institutes. Certainly there are those who believe this area is not sufficiently supported by the state. Bilingual readings, Irish language theatre and book launches are very well supported, indicating a public appetite for more!

37While the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht is actually declining, the situation outside it presents a positive picture of growing usage around the country among young people, an increasingly active culture developing around Irish-medium schools and various national cultural initiatives. There are Irish weeks, festivals, debating competitions, drama, music and cultural events. An interesting development is the lively community of bloggers, with good technical savvy, who commentate on current issues relating to Irish in society and to government decisions on the language, using social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Increasingly, members of the diaspora too are joining discussion boards such as Some interaction is in Irish, some in English. Genuine interest for the future of Irish is shown in these social media interactions and, increasingly, also for the EU policy on multilingualism. Young graduates indicate how their languages increased their employment opportunities.

  • 1 http://www.Irishlanguage.links/

38Volunteers maintain a number of sites offering free services online, such as translation and on-line Irish courses, some of which are interactive, with sound. Information on events in Irish is available on sites1 such as and on UTube.

Corpus development

39Reliable terminology is central to Irish language needs since Ireland became a working language of the EU and also due to the limited dictionary material. The Coiste Téarmíochta (a national terminology committee) serves the needs both of professional translators and the general public and increasing number of translators use the service. An advisory board examines proposed new terms each month, so term creation is quite rapid. The government has its own translation unit, which creates terminology for statutory and legislative requirements. The Department of Education, under its various names, ensured terminology was developed for all school subjects. Fiontar at Dublin City University initially specialised in the creation of terminology for business studies, but a major expansion was possible when EU INTERREG and national funding enabled it to establish a national on-line database of Irish terminology. It has continued to expand and under the name (Words) it has now over 325.000 terms and is available free to the public, as well as language specialists. Foras na Gaeilge now has national responsibility for corpus planning, terminology and dictionaries and has committed to a rapid provision of new dictionaries.

Legislation and implementation of Irish language ‘rights’

40Recent legislation on Irish has been followed by a series of documents aimed at achieving a comprehensive approach to implementation and evaluation, thus avoiding the past dilemma of legislative provision in theory, but with few, or weak, implementation strategies and enforcement procedures being put in place.

41When the Official Languages Act 2003, developed by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DRCGA), was signed into law in 2003, it received support from all political parties. It represents a significant advance in policy. This was the first time throughout years of short-term policies and strategies that the state promoted citizens’ language rights in a strong and unequivocal way. Over the years, various groups and members of the public had recourse to the courts of law with varying success, attempting to establish their rights to certain services in their first language and, in some cases, bringing these to the Strasbourg court. The Act established a structure and system for enforcing the language rights of those choosing to use Irish. Although critical, along with many Irish speakers, that legislation was not introduced earlier, Ó hÉallaithe (2004: 85) says: “that it should have taken eighty years to provide a legal framework to protect the rights of Irish speakers is a supreme example of state negligence…”, but believes: “the Official Languages Act signals an era of some hope that the tide is turning in favour of users of the language”. The Act focuses clearly on the language rights of those who wish to do their business through Irish, making it compulsory for government bodies and state institutions to provide translations of reports and a range of other documents and services through Irish. It ensures that universities and colleges invest in the promotion and support of Irish and, as with other bodies, develop a concrete plan or Scheme outlining their future provision. All government departments and many organisations have now put their schemes online for the public.

42An Coimisinéir Teanga (Commissioner for the Irish language) was appointed in 2004, to ensure the enforcement of citizens’ rights, as specified in the Act. He has a fully independent office and acts as a type of ombudsman, with the power to conduct investigations into any complaints from the public pertaining to services from state bodies. In assuming office he was immediately very proactive, speaking at various seminars and workshops throughout Ireland, encouraging Irish speakers to become acquainted with their rights. Leaflets and posters were published informing the public, among other points, that “either of the two official languages may be used in any court; in any pleading in any court, or in any document issuing from any court. The court has a duty to ensure that any person may be heard in the official language of his or her choosing. He issued a bilingual guidebook (CoI 2008) to assist the public regarding their language rights and to provide advice to public bodies regarding their new duties. This encouraged the public to engage with the Act and it has already brought over a hundred cases to the commissioner’s office.

43A Place-names Commission was in existence in Ireland since 1946. Now under Section 32 of the new Act, the Minister can issue place-name orders. The Act requires that the Irish version of place-names be used on street signs in Gaeltacht areas. This proved contentious. Street signs are usually bilingual in other parts of the country. One of the first orders by Minister Ó Cuív was to restore the 700-year old name ‘An Daingain’ to the town of Dingle. The local population resisted the renaming and a four year battle followed with wide media coverage. The Irish Examiner reported (2011: 17/06) “like other Gaeltacht areas, Dingle/An Daingean has been faced with an on-going and highly controversial conundrum: stick with traditional names or woo the tourists with pronounceable English-language equivalents”. A bilingual solution was eventually agreed, but required an amendment of a local government act to achieve the change. Bilingual road signage is being implemented quite speedily.

44As mentioned, the DRCGA commissioned a survey and report on the use and status of Irish in the Gaeltacht (DCRGA 2007) as a basis for the development of new policies. It was prepared by University College Galway and based on a two-year study which included in its methodology public meetings throughout the Gaeltacht and focus groups with almost one thousand young people, in an attempt to gain a contemporary view and capture all the socio-linguistic variables responsible for language choice. The report concludes “that language shift away from Irish is driven by social dynamics.” The recommendations reflect this belief and focus on the need to maintain Irish speakers as a majority in the Gaeltacht areas by adapting the Planning and Development Act (GoI 2000: 12) to ensure that those who move into the Gaeltacht ‘are primarily active Irish speakers’. The report states: “The unambiguous conclusion of the survey on young people is that, without a major change to language use patterns, Irish is unlikely to remain the predominate community and family language” and this despite the fact that “the education system in the Gaeltacht is successful, from pre-school to post-primary levels, in significantly developing the general Irish language competency of Gaeltacht students” (DCRGA 2007: 29). It established also that despite government grants received, the use of English in local companies and businesses was increasing. Among the many recommendations were the establishment of a strong youth organisation and summer colleges offering young people from different Gaeltacht areas cultural events and, for the business sector, the establishment of a Gaeltacht Chamber of Commerce ‘with responsibility, inter alia, for raising language awareness within this sector” (46). In the conclusion, the authors use the term ‘linguistic crisis’ urging a rational assessment of the challenges (49). The recommendations formed the basis for the development of an action plan.

45First, the Government produced the Statement on the Irish Language (2006), which outlines future actions for the ‘development and preservation’ of the Irish language which are ‘of crucial importance to the identity of the Irish people and to world heritage’ (Preamble: 4). Thirteen objectives are presented as the basis for a series of actions “to benefit the Irish language and the Gaeltacht.” The development of a long-term strategy was promised and the special status of Irish in the Constitution was confirmed (12). At the same time, it recognised the significant advantage English confers in international affairs and “commits to ensuring that this advantage is retained through the development of a bilingual society”. This represents a significant change of stated policy. Increasingly, ‘bilingual’ is the term used, instead of ‘the first’ or ‘national language’. The main objectives are to increase ‘on an incremental basis’ the use and knowledge of Irish as a community language and to ensure as many citizens as possible are bilingual.

46It describes a wide range of services in Irish and the arrangements to deliver them. Among the proposals are the monitoring of standards, and investment in professional development and resources for teachers, indicating commitment to address the concerns about standards of pupils and teacher proficiency, highlighted by various groups in the same year. When the Statement was presented in the Irish parliament (Dáil), it received all party support, indicating the popular support for maintaining and promoting Irish, even among those who do not speak it themselves.

47The most significant development linked to the Act was the publication, at the end of 2009, of the long promised 20-Year Strategy (Fiontar 2009), a framework designed to ensure the objectives in the Statement would be achieved along with the core objective of increasing the knowledge and use of Irish “on the whole island of Ireland”. The census of 2006 (CSO 2007) showed 1.66 million people had ‘a knowledge’ of Irish. The aim was to raise this number to 2 million during the period of the strategy, and to increase the number of those who actively use the language on a daily basis, from the current 23.000 to 250.000 – a very ambitious aim! Fiontar established a threshold of about 67% of the community as active speakers for the language to survive as ‘a community and family language’; otherwise they believe it is likely to be lost in 15 to 20 years. The government sets out, for the first time, to address a wide range of issues which could support the objectives set out: the teaching of Irish at all levels, modern methods, greater use of Irish in the media and in business, for example. It is the first time all the issues surrounding the teaching, learning and general social and business use of the Irish language are addressed in an integrated framework. The Fiontar team believe “the duration and scope” of the Strategy indicate clearly the government’s intention of giving Irish permanent status “as the deepest signifier of the distinctive history and culture of the Irish people” (Fiontar 2009: 3). They believe the measures presented, being based on research findings, consultation with international experts and the study of models of successful revitalisation in other countries, should ensure successful implementation. The Strategy also “recommends the re-introduction of a requirement regarding Irish language skills” for positions in the public service to attract “competent bilinguals” (26).

48The four inter-related documents cover the aspects of implementation, management and evaluation - a great advance on earlier approaches to Irish language policy. Towards the end of 2011, the government commenced a review, as promised, of the Official Languages Act. With an open call to stakeholders and the general public to participate, it attracted over 140 submissions, showing that people are eager to ensure its success. The public has already engaged with the new legislation, seeking enforcement and indicating a strong awareness of their language rights. The Language Commissioner revealed that 700 complaints were received by his office in 2010 about difficulties in accessing State services through Irish. Audits had established that one quarter of government departments and state agencies had been failing to provide even minimum services in Irish and a further 29% provided a level of service ‘inadequate to meet statutory obligations’ (Education Matters 2011). In view of the difficulties of immediately providing services through Irish, the Commissioner suggested positive discrimination towards Irish speakers in filling public service posts. Aware that the main focus for change might again be on education only, he insisted that: “A language which is abandoned by the state’s administrative system is a language without status – insignificant, marginalised…” (2008). He suggested that responsibility for implementation of the strategy should be at the most senior level of government, recognising, as had Ó Buachalla in his study of state education policy (1988), that change and implementation occurred only when a senior figure in Ireland was committed to leading and achieving progress.

Irish language promotion, education and compulsion

49The Language Commissioner (2008) addressed the challenge of the proposed increase in people speaking Irish daily to 250.000 in 20 years’ time. Referring to the 450.000 people who claimed in the 2006 census to use Irish daily within the educational system, but not outside it, he suggested significant change could be achieved if this group were motivated to use it more frequently. To achieve change the focus in the future must be on the education system, as it “is the most important and most expensive element of the State’s promotion of the language”. He feels it is “reasonable” to expect pupils to achieve a useful level of fluency in Irish before leaving school, but admitted that surveys and reports have consistently shown that this is not the case. At the launch of his annual report, the Commissioner once more addressed the issue, saying that despite heavy investment in the teaching of Irish, young people were leaving school without a basic command of the language. ‘Reform rather than abandon’ (2011) was his advice, and he supported the Government’s call for a fundamental review of the school curriculum, the way in which Irish is taught, and of teacher training.

50Attitudes are divided in Ireland on the issue of how to promote Irish. The reintroduction of compulsory Irish for civil service posts would certainly be controversial. ‘Making Irish optional’ was a slogan used by Fine Gael for over a decade to describe its proposed policy. Enda Kenny, the party leader, stated in an interview with Radio na Gaeltachta (06/02/2011) that “most students leave second-level without a reasonable command of the language, even though they have received about 1,500 hours of tuition” and that compulsion “a blunt tool” had failed. He confirmed his party’s intention of abolishing the mandatory status of Irish after Junior Certificate. However, since entering government in 2011, his party did not proceed with this plan, due to public controversy. According to O’Buachalla (1988) views on the Irish language constitute the most significant difference in policies between the two main political parties. Irish had been designated a compulsory subject in order to obtain a pass in school state examinations and was also required for the Civil Service. However in the 1970s there was much opposition to compulsion and, in 1973, Fine Gael removed the requirement for proficiency in Irish for entry to the Civil Service and for a pass in Irish to obtain the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate (LC) and it did not endeavour to have Irish adopted as an official language when Ireland joined the EEC in the same year. Pupils must still study Irish throughout their schooling, but can obtain the LC without a pass in Irish. Since its foundation at the start of the century, the National University of Ireland has had a regulation requiring Irish and a foreign language for entry, but Trinity College Dublin (TCD) does not. The entry requirement for proficiency in Irish for applicants for the police force was modified in 2005 so that ‘non-nationals’ could join. Non-Europeans may apply after 5 years residence. Irish is still essential for application for the army.

New opportunities

51There are fast growing requirements in translation and interpreting resulting from the enactment of the Languages Act. In 2010, the DCRGA announced a review of the government Central Translation Unit, set up at the end of 2008, and of Caighdeán Oifigiúil na Gaeilge, the written standards for Irish which were developed by the Unit. It created a training course in 2010 for translators, to meet specific needs arising from the new status of Irish as an official and working language of the EU. It also provided, through the Higher Education Authority (HEA), substantial funding to HE institutions for the development of programmes in Irish for specialist professional areas, including translation and interpreting. This achieved the quick creation of post-graduate courses at universities and colleges. Funding was also provided to Institutes of Technology and other colleges to allow the introduction of services similar to those established in larger universities. Dublin Institute of Technology, for example, opened an Oifig na Gaeilge (Irish Office), providing services such as translation of documents and reports, and a range of free Irish classes for staff and students. Classes are linked to cultural and social events, thus offering opportunities to identify others on campus who share the motivation to use Irish regularly. There is also an Irish-speaking student residence. Some universities award places in these to students in return for assistance with Irish-speaking cultural events, student clubs and associations and this is the model others are adopting.

Present education policy in Ireland affecting ‘other’ languages: short-term planning

The lack of an overarching policy for “languages”

52The status given to Irish in the constitution and subsequent legislation covers the full spectrum of economic, social and political life. The recent Strategy document goes further in a concern to establish a well-integrated approach to Irish. In the case of other languages, there is no legislative framework or policy to support them. Various projects and initiatives have been introduced, but there has been little concern for broader societal issues and context, for example, the role of language in citizenship or in education or the need for defined levels of language skills in the workplace and the provision of English and ‘home’ languages for newcomer children. Various reports and surveys have identified pressing needs in a rapidly changing Irish society, but have not resulted in the development of an overarching language in education policy, despite calls for planning and policy formulation from many organisations and schools experiencing problems.

53The National Consultative Council for Refugees (NCCRI), seeking to improve services for minority ethnic groups, established in a survey that insufficient knowledge of English was the biggest issue when accessing, for example, healthcare, or in court cases. Children or friends were called on for translation and interpretation. The NCCRI campaigned and received funding from the Minister for Integration for a study and report (NCCRI 2008) which details the actions necessary to improve the situation. The report influenced the creation of a qualification in ‘community’ interpreting in a small number of languages at one university, and of a code of ethics by the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association, but not the development of national policy. However, “In 2011, the European Parliament passed legislation giving all EU citizens rights to good quality interpretation and translation, when questioned by police or tried in another EU country” (EURACTIV 2010). This means that the Irish authorities are now obliged to ensure increased provision, to establish qualifications, standards, recognition of qualifications and which languages are most required.

English language provision for adults

54The DES established a Refugee Language Support Unit in the late 1990s and provided generous funding under the social inclusion policy. Later it became a campus company - Integrate Ireland Language and Training at TCD, providing English classes for adult refugees and asylum seekers only, but with responsibility for developing a programme of support and resources for primary and post-primary teachers of English as an additional language (EAL) and for research and development of materials for schools. It was closed down in 2008, despite sit-ins and protests. DES transferred responsibility for the provision of English for refugees to the Vocational Education Committees (VECs) which provide education throughout Ireland and were already offering English classes for adults and teacher training in English. Materials and resources were taken over by the NCCA for schools’ use.

55In the area of Higher Education, the Refugee Information Service commissioned a report (Coakley 2009) to study the obstacles faced by refugees and other immigrants seeking to enter university. Once more, this study highlighted language proficiency and the provision of English language training as the core issue for these groups. Among the recommendations was one stating that a properly supported English as a second or other language (ESOL) strategy was essential, as this could ensure better co-ordination of efforts nationally, better progression and the accreditation of any past learning.

56Research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) (2009) also focuses on issues with language, indicating that the majority of immigrant workers are unable to access employment at the level of their skills and qualifications, due to weak English language skills. Few employers provide language training. Similarly the bodies which were responsible for recruiting workers from abroad do not have a remit in language training and have mostly not taken on responsibility for the language proficiency of workers.

57There is no body with overall responsibility for adult language learning in Ireland. The VECs cooperate with the National Literacy Agency (NALA) to extend English teaching to include literacy support where necessary, and the remit of NALA was also extended to include English language support. It introduced ESOL training for its literacy tutors to enable them to teach English (NALA: 2008). Previously, the adult literacy classes had mainly Irish participants, but now between 30% and 50% are non-Irish. This is an example of individual bodies responding to local needs, as there is no overall language policy or planning.

58With little state support available, local initiatives often fill the gap. Some City Councils appointed integration officers and offer language learning opportunities as well as organising cultural events. One community response is Fáilte Isteach (Welcome In), an informal circle which has grown in a few years to 53 centres around Ireland, where 540 volunteers, older or retired people, provide free weekly English classes for migrants. Another voluntary organisation, Sport Against Racism negotiated reduced fees in language schools for team members to promote English learning and better integration.

“Other languages” in school education2

  • 2 Note on terminology: Little attention has been paid to achieving a consistent use of terminology i (...)

59Recent trends in language provision and uptake in Irish education can be seen by looking at the final year results of the Leaving Certificate examination (LC) and the categories offered. The number of pupils who passed languages in 2011: curricular languages.

60While Irish is a compulsory LC subject, English is not, so the difference of 7,058 is surprising. It may be explained by the increasing number of exemptions obtained from Irish.

61Arabic is a curricular subject, taught in Mosque schools only. The modern language projects are explained below.

62It is possible for certain students to sit other languages in the LC examination. The term used by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) to designate the languages listed below is ‘non-curricular’, as they are not taught in Irish schools. They are the home languages of immigrant children, taught usually in weekend and holiday classes provided by cultural associations, churches, institutes or embassies of the countries of the ‘newcomer’ children, as the DES makes no provision for these.

Source for the above data: State Examinations Commission (2011)

63Asian and African languages are not included, despite the very high numbers of, for example, Nigerians and Chinese living in Ireland at present. The language must be an EU language; the student’s mother tongue and students may only take one non-curricular language. The scheme disadvantages those whose mother tongue cannot be presented for the LC examination, especially as students sitting them mostly achieve high points, according to teachers who challenged the marking system for non-curricular languages, forcing the Minister of Education to agree to examine this contention (Irish Times 2009). The Irish language is promoted at LC level through a bonus points system. Students who sit general subjects through Irish gain extra marks, on a sliding scale. An honours level in Irish in the LC is counted as two subjects for study grants. Short-term decisions relating to modern languages mean a lack of consistency and regulation compared with other systems.

“Modern” languages: pilot projects and language diversity

64In 1999, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the body responsible for curriculum design and development for primary and post-primary education, issued a discussion paper proposing foreign languages be introduced in primary schools, as part of the development of a European dimension in education. There had been a strong interest in language learning in the early 1990s, mainly due to Ireland’s entry into the single European market and growing awareness of the promotion of early language learning at EC level. A survey, commissioned by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO 1991), revealed that of the 1.834 primary schools that responded, 23% were already teaching a foreign language, due mainly to pressure from parents. A considerable number of the larger schools, many private ones, and some gaelscoileanna already provided FL teaching as an extra subject, usually French, for a fee. The National Parents’ Council advocated this and reports from the OECD and the Council of Europe on early language learning were also influential with the Irish authorities.

65Reacting to reports and campaigns, the DES launched a Pilot Project in Foreign Languages in the Primary School in 1998, introducing it into 270, or 10% of the primary schools. A support system was initiated and schools received curriculum and teaching guidelines a year later. Teacher training and resources were provided, as teacher training colleges did not all offer a FL in the curriculum. Where one was offered, it was usually French. By the end of 2002, 400 primary schools were accepted into the scheme and the term ‘modern languages’ was adopted to replace ‘foreign languages’ in the project title. A strong support system with a national coordinator was put in place. Language teacher associations had long campaigned for ‘lesser-taught’ languages to be included in the primary project, as French dominated the secondary school curriculum in Ireland. Spanish and Italian were introduced, as well as French and German. However by 2005, only 17 schools offered Spanish, eleven German and three offered Italian. French still predominates with over 300 schools.

66The curriculum promotes cultural awareness as well as communicative competence in the FL and is taught in 5th and 6th classes only. Set up as a 2-year pilot project and initially funded from the European Social Fund, it was extended year by year. A major two-year evaluation commissioned by the DES was carried out (Harris & Conway, 2002). The results were very positive and 58% of participating teachers supported its extension to all schools. Despite this, thirteen years after the launch, it is still a pilot scheme, capped at 17% of the schools. As various bodies called for the mainstreaming of the project, (IBEC, CoE, RIA among others) the Government however announced the closure for December 2011, stating that the funding was required for a new literacy scheme. A national campaign was launched, supported by business, the media, parent and other groups; this resulted in the DES postponing the closure to the end of the school year.

67In 2003, the EU Commission had approved an Action Plan 2004-2006: Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity and Ireland had signed up to it. The CoE report (2008), points out that Ireland signed, but did not ratify the Barcelona agreement. At this time Ireland was beginning to experience some of the ethnic diversity of other European countries and EU proposals on multilingualism and plurilingualism were being studied carefully. The DES introduced a second pilot scheme the Post-primary Modern Languages Initiative in 2002, with the aim of promoting diversity and lesser-taught languages and to show that Ireland was complying with its commitment to deliver on the Barcelona agreement: mother tongue plus two (foreign) languages in secondary education. Japanese, Russian, Italian and Spanish were introduced in secondary schools. Some criticise the choice of languages, believing Polish and Mandarin Chinese would have been appropriate. Funding was made available for in-service training and special two-year diploma courses were created in universities and ITs to enable teachers to refresh languages they had not been teaching.

Languages in education: calls for an overarching languages policy

68A number of major reviews and reports have assessed the contemporary situation of languages in education and made proposals and recommendations for change.

69The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment carried out a major review (NCCA 2005) of languages in post-primary education, considering the place of Irish, English and modern languages in the curriculum. It also considered the arguments and views in the report (Little 2003) which it had commissioned earlier, and which was based on national consultation with teacher associations, the inspectorate and language educators at all levels. It argues the case “for an integrated language curriculum”, as at present there is only “a series of language curricula that are largely independent of one another”. They quote Little’s contention that “the curriculum is haphazard and piecemeal.” and ‘an impoverishment of the educational experience’ (p. 16). Likewise a Council of Europe report (2008) later states that separate syllabuses give rise to the use of very different pedagogies, different content and there is no shared view of what underpins successful language learning. The DES Inspectors’ report (DES 2004) had already found “too much rehearsal for examinations”, rote learning and not enough independent work. The NCCA while seeking to address these issues, continued to argue that languages should be adopted as a core curriculum area (2005:16) on the basis of the broad educational goals of personal and social development.

70Another report (NCCA 2004) commissioned by the NCCA from the Economic and Social Research Institute looked at the transition from primary to secondary school. It was more outspoken and stated that Irish was perceived to be the most difficult and least enjoyable subject in the first year of secondary school. It was generally taught through English and “rehearsal for the examination… rather than language acquisition” was observed to be the dominant activity. The teaching of other languages was similar. In 2011 a new NCCA survey at secondary level found pupils perceived languages as difficult and the most disliked subjects were modern languages and then Irish.

71There are regular calls for a change from the examination focus in Irish to new approaches with strong emphasis on communicative activities. There had been various proposals (Little 2003; CoE 2008), for the introduction of differentiated syllabuses for Irish to improve standards, as the existing curriculum content is considered too literary as it is based on the assumption that Irish is the first language of all pupils. There should be an L2 syllabus for pupils whose mother tongue is English, in line with foreign language syllabuses. The proposal for differentiated L1 and L2 syllabuses has been reiterated by various groups over the years and existing curricula are also considered unsatisfactory for native speakers of Irish. The DES responded by increasing to 40% the marks for the oral component at the LC examination, with immediate effect - another example of short-term policy decisions. Whilst some Irish language organisations expressed concern that it could lead to a lowering of standards, it is broadly supported by teacher unions, in the belief that new methods and an emphasis on oral skills would result in more positive attitudes to the language. The DES further proposed some subjects be taught through the medium of Irish in all primary schools, using a content and language integrated learning (CLIL) approach, as suggested for EAL.

72With various interest groups campaigning for a comprehensive language policy to deal with issues in MLs in Ireland, the DES invited the Language Policy section of the CoE to Ireland in 2004 to undertake a Country Profile and Report on Ireland. It is very significant to this debate, as language issues in primary, secondary and, to some extent, in higher education and broader society were examined (CoE 2008). The team consulted widely and met with teachers, academics, researchers, private bodies and government. The recommendations were all encompassing and linguists expected the recommendations to be the basis for the development of a long-term policy for languages. The Minister for Education welcomed “this thorough analysis of the role of languages in education and in Irish society” and said it “will be of great assistance in planning for the future.” (DES 2008a). The DES set up a Policy Working Group to examine the recommendations and to develop proposals for follow-up action. A draft policy document was developed; however it has not been published and new issues, mentioned below and diminishing funding certainly pose a threat to developments.

73The Council of Europe saw the challenge for Ireland in developing a vision for the future where Ireland moves from ‘lame’ and ‘restricted bilingualism’ to become a truly multilingual society, “where the learning and use of two or more languages is taken for granted and fostered at every stage of education and beyond, for all, not just linguists. They believed the biggest challenge is to get society to see that “English is not enough” (CoE 2008). They confirmed the central role of Irish and English, but took the broader view that other languages are also part of Ireland’s cultural, social and economic resources and should be harnessed. They recognised that Irish schools are expected to achieve many of the goals of government policy for Irish: “The responsibility given to the school is thus notably more important than in other sociolinguistic contexts such as Catalonia, the Basque country or Valle d’Aosta with which it might be compared.” (CoE 2008: 17).

The Royal Irish Academy and language policy in Ireland

74In calling for a national language policy, various bodies and ML teacher associations often overlooked the existence of a language policy for Irish. Each language interest group worked independently. This was the case also in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), where commissions and subject committees for English, Irish and modern languages met and deliberated independently. Teachers of English and Irish believed their interests and issues had nothing in common with those teaching foreign languages.

75Continuing concern for the future of all languages in higher education and for the lack of follow-through on commitments to diversify and work towards multi-lingual goals, led the RIA Committee for Modern Languages to establish a working-group, representing all educational levels and all languages, to examine language policy and planning in Ireland. Among the major concerns raised were the levels of proficiency among teachers of Irish and FLs, the need for new and active teaching methods, the introduction of foreign languages in primary teacher training colleges and the need to diversify and promote other than the ‘major’ language French, which predominates at all levels, diversification to include ‘minor’ languages in the post-primary curriculum also, the dropping of languages from Institutes of Technology (IOTs) and decreasing uptake in languages at university, along with the possible abolition of the university FL entry requirement. The aim was to examine all the areas which might be encompassed in a languages-in-education policy. A major national conference was organised in 2006 to initiate an all-inclusive, national debate. It brought together representatives of all interest groups, including business. A series of workshop reports and a document arguing for an over-arching languages policy were produced with a series of recommendations (Broderick & O’Doherty 2006). In the years following, there was new legislation and initiatives for Irish, as reported above, but none of the desired outcomes were achieved for modern languages. The main objective, the creation of a national forum and advisory group to work on a coherent, overarching language policy for Ireland was again the core issue when, at the end of 2011, the RIA succeeded in mobilising strong support from the media, business and industry for its proposal for a national languages strategy “aimed primarily at policy-decision makers” (RIA 2011). It contained an analysis of the current situation and 28 recommendations, encompassing all levels of education and broader society.

76Language lecturers at the Institutes of Technology (ITs), the sector where languages had been severely cut, (having been dropped from all engineering and science and many business programmes) set up a national IT language policy and planning group. In order to promote positive steps to save languages in the sector, it set up a web-site disseminating research and information on EU developments and promoting progressive pedagogies, especially the use of IT. Some Universities and IRAAL also followed up with seminars or conferences in Irish and English on language policy and planning. Various events provided a forum for debate on the issue of policy development with experts, often invited by institutes, such as the Goethe Institute, Cervantes or the Alliance Française. Lectures on endangered and minority languages and efforts to inform public opinion that “English is not enough” have been organised with growing collaboration across languages and levels. NUIG hosted an international conference on language planning and one on language rights. The School of Law at TCD also adopted a ‘rights’ approach to Irish in a public seminar on the Languages Act at the start of 2012. The overall aim was to inform the public and encourage organisations and individuals to participate in the government’s open consultation and review of the Languages Act.

‘Newcomers’ and the schools

77Education is faced with new demands as the number of immigrant children accessing primary and post-primary education, especially in urban areas, is continuing to grow. The rapid demographic change which occurred in Ireland over a short period has created major problems for schools which struggle to meet the needs of the large number of ‘newcomer’ children concentrated in schools in certain areas. No official figures have been issued yet, but in 2010, the DES estimated the figure to be a minimum of 10% of primary pupils and 6% of post-primary pupils. At the start of 2012, a DES official estimated it at about 12% at both school levels (McManus 2012). The latest survey of the EU Migration Policy Index placed Ireland in a low position in many areas, as the ‘targeted measures’ for migrants are ‘less favourable’ than in most EU countries. It cites the cuts in English teaching and that Ireland is missing out on the economic potential of its non-EU residents. (Irish Times 2011). There is no state provision for ‘home’ or ‘community languages’. Classes for newcomer children are often organised, as mentioned earlier, by the communities themselves. There are for example, two Polish schools, weekend and summer courses and a strong Polish language media presence with, for example, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Smaller ethnic groups do not have these resources and some are not able to provide mother tongue tuition.

Provision of English as an additional language (EAL)

78Initially the term adopted for English as a foreign language was ESOL. Later this was applied to adult learning only and the term used in UK schools, ‘English as an additional Language’ was officially adopted by the NCCA and the DES for the supplementary English classes offered to ‘linguistic minority pupils’. Pupils are entitled to two years provision of EAL only; those with refugee status are entitled to continuing provision throughout their schooling. The approach adopted is withdrawal from class for one-to-one English tuition, which usually means pupils cannot attend Irish classes. The number of English language support teachers in primary schools was reduced from just over 2.000 to 1.620 in 2008-9. Then, despite the increasing number of newcomer children enrolling in schools, they were cut to 1.182 in 2010 and further cuts were announced for 2011, a very problematic situation for primary schools, as newcomers comprise between 2% and 75% of some classes. From 2011, the DES set a maximum of two language support teachers per school and responsibility for the development of the English language skills is increasingly placed on teachers of the other subjects. As the DES has not developed national policies, each school is expected to develop its own policies and procedures. This is complex due to the varied conditions and the different numbers, languages and origins of the “newcomer” pupils.

79One approach proposed by the DES (2009a) is the use of CLIL with “children from linguistic minority groups,” to make the curriculum more ‘accessible’. This would involve subject specialists in language work. No training in CLIL methodology has been provided and it is not part of initial teacher training. One VEC therefore set up a course for the 26 second-level schools it operates and which have from 25% to 33% ‘newcomer’ pupils. It designed and delivered a course open to all subject teachers using a Cambridge University ESOL examination to offer a qualification. A large number of teachers agreed to train and all succeeded in obtaining certification. Other groups of schools are considering this model. The DES issued a second circular to encourage schools to address their EAL needs, stressing “The key to the acquisition of language is the role that all teachers play in supporting language development within their subject” (DES 2009b). In a teacher initiative, EAL teachers founded their own association (ELSTA), to support their work and gain training. Once more various small initiatives are developed locally to meet new demands. The DES encourages individual school responses, rather than developing a national policy, as it has done for areas such as science or literacy.

80In the same year, the principals of five ‘multi-ethnic’ primary schools went before the government Oireachtas Joint Committee to make a case for increased language support for ‘children of non-Irish parents at their schools, which had a majority of these children – up to 75% in some classes. They stated that the present model of integration and language provision is based on “totally unsuitable immersion principles which presume that English is spoken by the majority of the pupils.” (Education Matters 2010). They stressed the need for a broad language strategy which would ensure that the families, as well as the children, would learn English “as soon as possible, to enable them to integrate into Irish society”. The media headlined their conclusion that strong language support is “essential to avoid ghettoes forming”. One TD (Irish MP) took up the issue and stated that there would be long-term consequences, such as a rise in racism, if the issues of unsatisfactory provision were not resolved (Irish Independent 2010). The Teachers’ Union of Ireland researched the issue of racism in schools. Among the key findings was that 62% of the teachers pointed to the inadequate support for English and 70% to inadequate interpretation services as the key issues in schools, once again confirming the central role of language and need for a language policy (TUI News 2010).

81On the basis of various recommendations and findings in these reports, the DES commissioned the ESRI to examine the experience of schools catering for newcomer students, their distribution, mode of language provision, suitability of curriculum and materials and adequacy of school social supports. Adapting to Diversity (ESRI 2009) noted the range of challenges for schools lacking experience of cultural and linguistic diversity and the principals’ views that provision of English based on withdrawal from class meant that half the children still had language difficulties. They also suggested that the children would benefit from being included in Irish classes. No official evaluation of EAL is available. A study was undertaken in 30 primary and 15 post-primary schools in 2008 by the DES, but has not yet been published. Meanwhile, the DES and the Office of the Minister for Integration published, at the end of 2010, the “Intercultural Education Strategy, 2010-2015”. This addresses mainly cultural issues, rather than language.

Research on migrant integration difficulties and language needs

82The current situation has become an important object of research in colleges and universities. Various government departments have funded studies and reports and Atlantic Philantrophies funded a series of projects in areas of migration or multiculturalism, including an extensive study at TCD (Gilligan 2010). This established that migrants are satisfied with their working conditions in Ireland. However, they believe their children face many problems, especially inadequate support to help them integrate. The study found a widespread tendency to assume these pupils belong in the same category as special-needs pupils. This underlines clearly a lack of understanding of language acquisition and learning. Gilligan said a new approach to language in the curriculum is needed, and this would benefit not just migrants, but ‘marginalised communities’ who also have difficulty with academic language at school. The way in which language support teachers were allocated “was appalling” and he feared the children of migrants could “become alienated and disaffected”. This was the first clear statement on the significance of language.

“Other” languages in Higher Education

83The CoE (2008: 13) recognised “that the power of global English undoubtedly creates special problems for all other languages in Irish education”. Besides the continuing drop in numbers taking a foreign language up to LC level, Ireland is experiencing a considerable reduction in uptake in HEIs. Yet the Higher Education Authority (HEA), in a study of what employers seek in graduates, established that companies cannot recruit sufficient language graduates in Ireland. It estimated that only 3% of the students in higher education in 2010 had a FL as part of their studies. This contrasts sharply with the 1980s when 70% or more in some IOTs had an obligatory language component on their course. Gallagher (2006: 46) shows that the uptake in languages at the seven universities, including Irish, reduced yearly from 1998 to 2004, despite an overall increase of 20% in students entering university during those years (p. 47). Spanish was an exception, Italian also, but with tiny numbers. Chinese and Japanese were not included, as they are not yet widely available.

Standards and citizenship

84The government announced that new legislation on citizenship will include a language test. Applicants must demonstrate ‘reasonable competence’ in either Irish or English’ and different categories of citizenship would be determined by the level of English. This raises the issue of defining standards for languages. The National Qualifications Authority of Ireland has for some years been considering alignment between the CFER and the national framework of qualifications. Meanwhile the university college at Maynooth developed TEG, a European certification system for Irish, linked to the CFER. It is already widely in use for university and adult courses in Irish. The CFER was also adopted for English on migrant projects; but while used in certain school projects, it has not been adopted nationally for MLs in school or university sectors. Its introduction would certainly shift the emphasis to an active, communicative use of language called for in many reports.

New economic imperative – languages and economic recovery

85Languages are not usually included in the skills considered important for the Knowledge Economy and are not mentioned in the new government plan: Strategy for Higher Education in Ireland, (HEA 2011). Linguists may believe a language policy would solve most problems for languages. However other developments at the political level strongly influence policy. In 2011, the OECD published an Economic Survey of Ireland and highlighted a poor performance in mathematics in Irish schools. It advised: “To preserve its human capital Ireland needs to ensure a high quality of education. […] The PISA 2009 outcomes declined sharply in reading and mathematics performance” (28). It listed specific problems in the schools. The Minister for Education immediately announced farreaching changes, including the introduction of new mathematics curricula and a reduction in the number of subjects from about twelve to eight for the Junior Certificate. The implications of this and related decisions, could prove a great challenge to maintaining languages in the curriculum. As mentioned earlier, Pisa report findings on literacy levels had resulted in a ruling from the DES, revoked in a second circular, that all primary schools must spend 30 minutes minimum per day on English.

86While some ministers acknowledge the importance of languages, they react quickly to comments relating to other areas, especially from outside Ireland. In a debate in the Oireachtas (parliament), the Minister of State at the DES gave a lengthy reply to a question on the position of modern languages (Dáil Éireann 2011):

The Minister is aware of the importance of promoting competence in a range of languages to support business and employment opportunities in Ireland and abroad. However, there is a range of factors which must be considered in future decisions on language education at different levels and in the context of national economic and social priorities.” He mentioned the post-primary level and finished by stating: “Indeed given the entrance requirements for many universities, studying a language is effectively an obligatory requirement, and this is an issue that may need reconsideration in the light of the economic imperative to encourage more students to study the physical sciences… The government is prioritising an agenda of curriculum reform in science and mathematics.

87The lack of a coherent overarching language policy is a major challenge, as is the government focus, in seeking to attract investment, on English speaking multinational companies. Curriculum decisions are often an assurance to foreign companies of the government’s determination to ensure the supply of graduates required by industry, in line with the OECD statement: “Foreign multi-national corporations have played a central role in Irish economic growth, it is essential that Ireland remains attractive for them” (2011: 28). Science was recently introduced as ‘core’ into the primary curriculum. In post-primary schools, some technical subjects are to be promoted at a time when ‘curriculum overload’ (NCCA 2010) requires a reduction in the number of subjects-another very challenging situation for all languages in education and an argument for a unified approach across languages.


88Views differ on how to promote and advance Irish. Walsh believes the “economic growth and modernisation approach” has been inappropriate for the Gaeltacht (Walsh 2009: 27) and is confident that now “Údarás development planning has moved to a more holistic engagement with both civil society and the market”. However, sustained change requires “a national planning framework for Irish”… “setting out clear targets and insuring that various language planning initiatives are coordinated and their effectiveness monitored”.

89The Language Commissioner is specific. In a paper delivered at UCG, shortly after his appointment, he stated: “Ní féidir leis an Acht Teanga as féin an teanga a shábháil. Pobal na tíre seo amháin ar féidir leo é sin a dhéanamh …” (The Languages Act alone cannot save the language. Only the people of this country can do that) (CfI 2006: 23). He reiterated this recently (CfI 2011), stating that with the new legislation, the strategies and supports proposed for Irish, the state can no longer be blamed for inaction. It is, he said, up to the people to use all the possibilities now available. O Riagáin (2008) believes “A sustainable, bilingual language policy has to aim always to recruit from the ranks of those currently speaking English, rather than simply service those currently speaking Irish.” He is therefore sceptical about the impact of the Languages Act. “The Irish language in the 21st century is already charting its course in new directions. The traditional sectors of education, community, arts and media are no longer discrete domains in which separate policies can be formulated and implemented.” (Fiontar 2008: 29).

90The Council of Europe in criticising “the compartmentalisation present in all areas of language education and of broader society in Ireland”, (CoE 2008: 49) concluded: “Future policy must take account of the opportunities for linking… and more creative recognition of resources”. The NCCA too concluded that an integrated approach to languages would “enrich the experience of learning languages” and was essential as a basis for modernising and ensuring better outcomes. In a review of languages (NCCA 2004: 30) it showed clearly that the concerns and issues relating to Irish are mostly the same as those for all languages (p. 31) and the practical proposals made for Irish could be adopted for other languages. An overarching language policy for education and society, as proposed by these bodies could support a unified and creative response. “Ireland is… conditioned in its reflection on languages by an ideology of territoriality: a language is seen as having a spatial and geographical identity” (CoE: 2008). The Council of Europe proposes a more virtual concept for Irish in the future, e-communities which include the diaspora, more ICT and distance learning in formal and informal education, ideas which are similar to the proposals made by Fiontar (2009). For the Council of Europe: “The main challenge, in terms of vision for the future, is perhaps to shift progressively from an official but lame bilingualism to the full recognition of differentiated plurilingual profiles (with varying languages and types of competences)” (2008: 34). This vision encompasses a broad and inclusive approach to Irish and other languages.

91Ó hÉallaithe (2004: 177) also envisions a pluralist future: “The revival failed, in my opinion, because it was an aspiration rather than a realistic objective”. He believes all is not lost, as the Languages Act “signals an era of some hope” and “if the Irish-language movement… could refocus its energies… reassert its leadership role… (it) could emerge from the margins and have a leading role in the development of multicultural Ireland in which the survival of Irish would be secure.” He embraces the new multicultural reality, as do many young language activists via social media, proposing that Irish and EU languages should form the basis of a multilingual approach in the future. Taking up the challenge to promote Irish via new media and to include newcomers in creative initiatives, is a TV series in which an Irish world champion boxer tours the country encouraging people to activate their school Irish and visiting well-known personalities, including immigrants, who have learned the language. Striking billboard advertisements and UTube are part of the supporting publicity campaign and a ‘club’ for those signing on is available on Facebook and Twitter. Also just launched is a language course aimed at speakers and new learners of Irish and which uses social media to broaden the learning experience.


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1 http://www.Irishlanguage.links/

2 Note on terminology: Little attention has been paid to achieving a consistent use of terminology in Ireland in the areas mentioned. While there is a prescribed use of designations in Irish for political roles and the parliamentary system, (ex: ‘dáil’ for parliament), there is not a set of standardised terms for education and language. In relation to the children of immigrants, they were first called the ‘new-Irish’, then ‘newcomers’, then ‘children of non-Irish parents’ and ‘immigrant children’ is now sometimes used. Recently other terms were adopted. In general, usage seems haphazard. Department names also change frequently. The Department of Education became first the Department of Education and Science, and recently, the Department of Education and Skills (DES), as a new focus was adopted. Similarly, the Department of Foreign Affairs was renamed the Department of External Affairs and, in legislation, the term ‘non-Irish’ replaced ‘alien’ in The Aliens Act. The Department of the Gaeltacht no longer exists. Originally it was subsumed into the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; then into the Department of Arts, Heritage and Tourism, where it replaces Tourism. There is still a junior minister for the Gaeltacht. The DES originally used the term ‘foreign’ languages, then this was replaced by ‘continental’ languages and later, the DES and other bodies adopted ‘modern’ languages which surprisingly includes Latin but not Irish or English. Recently ‘modern foreign languages’ is sometimes adopted, as this avoids Irish or English being included! Schoolchildren are increasingly referred to as ‘students’, not ‘pupils’ by the DES, and educationalists. Terms such as ‘bilingualism’ are also used with varying meaning. However, economists use terms carefully and the ESRI emphasized the need to standardise terms when it undertook educational research for the DES (ESRI: 2009).

Table des illustrations

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Légende Source for the above data: State Examinations Commission (2011)
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Linguiste, directrice du Departement of Languages and Culturel Studies, Dublin Institute of Technology.

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