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Identifier et catégoriser les langues minoritaires en Europe

Joan Busquets
Sébastien Platon
Alain Viaut

L'exemple irlandais et les pôles paradoxaux de l'identité linguistique

At the Linguistic Margins in Northern Ireland: Legislation and Education. Historical Overview

Sur les marges linguistiques de l’Irlande du Nord : législation et enseignement. Aperçu historique

Eugene McKendry


L’irlandais est aujourd’hui majoritairement une langue seconde, et non plus une langue première. À travers les événements du XVIIe siècle à nos jours et en comparant avec d’autres langues minoritaires (le gallois, l’Ulster-scots), la situation sociolinguistique et les enjeux éducatifs auxquels l’irlandais doit faire face en Irlande du Nord sont décryptés. Les attitudes négatives des unionistes protestants envers l’irlandais depuis la division de l’Irlande en 1921 ont eu des répercussions durables dans le domaine de l’éducation. La signature de la Charte des langues régionales ou minoritaires en 2000 ainsi que la reconnaissance institutionnelle de l’irlandais au sein de l’UE en 2005 ont donné l’espoir d’une évolution positive. L’irlandais est enseigné à l’école au même titre que l’espagnol ou le français, en tant que « langue moderne ». Un manque de motivation général est cependant constaté pour l’apprentissage des langues. Il convient de faire prendre conscience des bénéfices de la maîtrise d’une langue minoritaire, dans une approche en phase avec les réalités sociales, professionnelles et culturelles environnantes, de favoriser des attitudes positives envers les langues en général et les compétences linguistiques, de montrer l’apprentissage d’une langue minoritaire non plus comme un repli sur soi, mais comme une ouverture vers d’autres langues.

Texte intégral

1Prior to the partition of Ireland in 1922, the condition in history of the Irish language in what is now Northern Ireland was, on the whole, comparable to what pertained in the rest of Ireland. Broadly similar social, economic, political and cultural factors lay behind the linguistic decline of Irish Gaelic throughout Ireland, indeed of Gaelic generally throughout Scotland and the Isle of Man as well. But, while retaining the broader context, we must also consider the distinctive circumstances in the North of Ireland if we are to understand the evolution of provision for Irish there, in education and elsewhere.

2Up until the beginning of the 17th century, there was cultural and linguistic cohesion in the Gaelic world, as epitomised by the bardic tradition stretching from Kerry in South-western Ireland to North-eastern Scotland or, as referred to in Irish, Ó Chiarraí go Cataibh. Moreover, the northernmost province of Ulster had remained the most steadfastly Gaelic province of Ireland, resisting the English crown and maintaining strong links with Gaelic Scotland. It is ironic, therefore, to reflect that the defeat of the Irish at Kinsale in County Cork in 1601, in the far south, had its most durable reverberations in the north. In the wake of Kinsale many Ulster chiefs left Ireland in 1607, in the Flight of the Earls/Imeacht na nIarlaí, leaving the way open for the Plantation of Ulster in 1609 by English and Scottish settlers.

3The extirpation of the Irish language was part of the colonisation intent and process. Sir John Davies, one of the architects of the plantation, declared in 1612: “We may conceive and hope that the next generation will in tongue and heart and every way else become English so as there will be no difference or distinction but the Irish Sea between us.” (Davies 1969: 272).

4So what language or languages did the planters speak? ‘Erse’, thought to originate in the Norse form of the word ‘Irish’, was the Scots English word for Gaelic, encompassing as we have seen, Scottish Gaelic and Irish. What we now call Scots was originally called ‘Inglis’ which is of course English. As in the 11th century England was conquered by the Normans, many noblemen fled to the North from England. Their settlement was supported by the Scottish king and followed by additional settlement from the South. Gradually, their language “[…] spread through the whole lowland area, with Gaelic remaining beyond the Highland line”. (Crystal 1988: 216).

5The political border between Scotland and England gave rise to divergence between ‘Inglis’ and Southern English. In addition, many settlers in Scotland came from the North of England where the Northumbrian dialect was spoken, more based on the speech of the Angles than the south of England, e.g. the area around London, where the Saxon origin was more dominant. Nevertheless this link to Northern England denotes a dialect continuum from Scotland to the south of England and while recognising the differences between Angle and Saxon, we should also consider that linguistically, culturally and politically we tend to see Anglo-Saxon as a unity.

6So, although many of the planters to Ulster did come from Gaelic-speaking Scotland (Ó Snodaigh 1995: 24-34) the language of the plantation was English and has been perceived as such ever since. The strong Scottish element in some districts in Northern Ireland is a recognised dialectal factor, but until the recent emergence of Ullans, Lallans, Ulster-Scots, or whatever the final designation will be, no one considered it other than a local dialect of English. A good illustration of this is in the Ordnance Survey memoirs of the 1830s, a marvellous source for social history, where the surveyors, mostly English officers, remark repeatedly upon how unpleasant and uncouth the Ulster accent was to their ears, but never do they suggest that it is anything other than a dialect.

7The plantation of Ulster was an enterprise for British/Englishness, for Protestantism and for the English language and culture. But Davies’ vision of an English-only Ireland has been fulfilled only partially, as the current situation in Ireland, north and south, shows.

8The 1911 census was the last one to include a question on the speaking of Irish for the whole island (Adams: 1964). The language was represented within each of the six counties of what became Northern Ireland, with 2,3% of the counties’ population, almost 29.000 people, reporting themselves as Irish speakers in 1911, mostly in the rural areas (Table 1). The distribution of Irish speakers in the census revealed definite, if residual, Irish-speaking communities in areas such as the Glens of Antrim and Rathlin Island to the east and, significantly, a fragile linguistic continuum extending all the way from the shores of Lough Neagh across Tyrone, the heart of Ulster, into the strong Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas) of Donegal, now in the Republic of Ireland. These results show that a small, if ageing, native Irish-speaking population existed at the foundation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. It should be noted in passing that three of the nine historic Ulster Counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, are excluded from the Northern Ireland state although the term ‘Ulster’ is often used by Unionists as a synonym for Northern Ireland.

9Wagner (1981: XVIII-XIX) traced the subsequent decline of Irish in East Ulster. He collected the material for his Linguistic Atlas of Ireland in 1950 (1952 for Rathlin Island) and found what he described as ‘the ruins of a language’ (Wagner 1981: X). Today the intergenerational transmission has been broken in these areas. But arguably, through education in the 20th century, Irish is actually stronger throughout Northern Ireland now than in the period prior to partition, although the predominant profile of speakers has changed from first language to second language speakers. A similar point about the role of the schools in maintaining Irish in the Republic is made by Harris and Murtagh (1999: 336-337) and Ó Riagain (2001: 204). The role of the school is similarly vital in Wales but the lack of a strong school presence for Gaelic in the Gaeltacht and lowlands of Scotland is a primary reason for the current weakness of Scottish Gaelic.

10No further Census language question was included in Northern Ireland until 1991 (Table 1) when the Registrar General reported a perhaps surprisingly high figure of just over 142.000 people, or slightly less than 10% of the total population, responding positively to the questions “Can the person speak, read or write Irish?”. The wording of the question on language was identical to that on Gaelic in the 1991 Census for Scotland (DHSS/RGNI 1993: vii). The Scottish Census revealed a community of 65.000 people with a knowledge of Gaelic (Mate 1997: 317) less in number and percentage than for Irish in Northern Ireland, although more representative of an inherited competence. This comparison with Scottish Gaelic (closely related to Irish) is significant when considering the adequacy of planning and provision for the Irish language. Nevertheless, as responses were given by self-evaluation, the figure of 142.000 Irish speakers is somewhat optimistic. The fact that over 79.000 respondents indicated that they could ‘speak, read and write Irish’, however, indicates a substantial proportion of the population having a significant competence in the language. All in all, 26% of the Catholic population, but only 2% of Protestants, answered the language question positively in 1991. This coincides almost exactly with the assessment of the proportion of the population who are Irish speakers according to the Continuous Household Survey of 1987 (Sweeney, 1988) where it was calculated that 25% of Catholics and 2% of Protestants have some knowledge of Irish.

11The 2001 census (NISRA: 2002/3) was changed to include ‘understand spoken Irish’ as well as the ability to speak, read and write the language, and recorded an increase to 167.490 in the number of people claiming knowledge of Irish. This represents 10,35% of the total Northern Ireland population of 1.617.957. The Irish-competent population is predominantly young, with 13,7% of those recorded in 2001 as having some knowledge found in the 15-24 age group but only 4,9% in the 65+ age group. This age profile reflects a dependence on the school system. The disparity in competence in the language in the two communities is consistent with the fact that Irish is not taught in State (predominately Protestant) schools. The language is commonly identified with the Catholic school system and an Irish Catholic culture and, unjustifiably, with a rejection of the Northern Ireland state (identified hitherto with the Unionist, Protestant majority).

Table 1 - Irish in Northern Ireland census returns

1911 Census

1991 Census

2001 Census

Total population




Knowledge of Irish




Knowledge of Irish

2,3 %



Irish in the Northern Irish State

12Developing 19th and early 20th century nationalism and republicanism, culminating in the Partition of Ireland in 1921, and the politicisation of aspects of the language movement prior to the Easter Rebellion of 1916, had alienated most Unionist and Protestant opinion from the language, particularly in the north. From its inception Northern Ireland, “a Protestant state with a Protestant parliament”, as Prime Minister Lord Craigavon described it in 1934, regarded the Irish language as subversive and a threat. When convenient, Unionist education policy preferred to emphasise the link with Britain, culturally as much as politically. This attitude led for example to the blocking in the 1950s of a proposal to establish a Schools Broadcasting Council for the BBC in Northern Ireland, as it was felt that “[…] it would be a mistake to regard Northern Ireland as in any way different from England” and that “[…] productions from Great Britain were all that the pupils in Northern Ireland’s schools needed” (Cathcart 1984: 175).

13Irish had no official status in Northern Ireland. The government had no bilingual policy and one could not deal with the administrative authorities in Irish, or get Irish or bilingual official forms (Committee on the Administration of Justice 1993: 8). It went so far as some registrars of birth refusing to record Irish forms of names. ‘Seáns’ were officially ‘Johns’, ‘Mairéads’ officially ‘Margarets’. The language was treated with scorn and hostility, although no overtly punitive policy was adopted. Irish was neglected, considered irrelevant and, in education particularly, treated as a foreign language of little use. For example, archival records from 1928 contain an internal Ministry of Education memo that states “[…] we should avoid carefully any impression that we desire to encourage the teaching of the language” (Andrews 1991: 94). The durability of such attitudes to Irish in education is widely recorded.

Political Developments since the 1970s Affecting Irish

14The introduction of ‘Direct Rule’ from Westminster after the dissolution of the Northern Ireland parliament in 1972 heralded a more mellow official climate. Article 5a of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, while making no specific reference to Irish, does recognise ‘the rights and identities of the two traditions’ and the need to consider ‘measures to foster the cultural heritage of both traditions’ (Hadden & Boyle 1989: 30-31). In the official review of the Agreement, published in May 1989, the language is explicitly mentioned. The governments recognise the ‘importance of the Irish Language in this context (i. e. the effort to improve efforts to enhance awareness and appreciation of this particular strand of the Cultural Heritage’ (Hadden & Boyle 1989: 85). While it is difficult to quantify the direct effect of such statements, various initiatives at Government and local level can be cited, such as the Department for the Environment publishing a bilingual map and gazetteer, the Royal Mail delivering letters addressed in Irish if they have the correct postcode and some District Councils having Irish language committees (McKendry 1995: 30).

15The Belfast Agreement, popularly referred to as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), was signed by the British and Irish governments in 1998. In the section on ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Issues’, the governments “recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities” (Agreement 1998: § 3). In the context of its intention to sign the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (which it duly did in March 2000), the British government also undertook, “where appropriate and where people so desire it, to take resolute action to promote the [Irish] language” (Agreement 1998: § 4).

The emergence of Ulster Scots

16Ulster Scots emerged from the Good Friday Agreement as a political counterbalance to Irish. This was followed by clever use of and claim to the phrase ‘Parity of Esteem’ by Unionist interests, countering its previous use in Nationalist discourse, Although the legislation and official documentation do not grant the same status to Ulster Scots as to Irish, the popular message from politicians and propagandists was that they were to be treated as equal. It is worth noting that the first chair of the Ulster Scots Agency (John, now Lord, Laird) was a former Public Relations agency owner. The linguistic status of Ulster-Scots is problematic. “The case for Ulster-Scots being a distinct language, made at a time when the status of Scots itself was insecure, is so bizarre that it is unlikely to have been a linguistic argument.” (Mac Póilin 1999:116). In matters of terminology, it is important to note however that the word ‘language’ is not attached to the term ‘Ulster-Scots’ in the GFA.

17An outcome of the Good Friday Agreement was the setting up under the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 of 6 Cross Border Bodies, one of which was the Cross-Border Language Body. Ulster-Scots is defined in the Order as “the variety of the Scots language, which has traditionally been used in parts of Northern Ireland and Donegal”. Annex 1, Part 5 outlines the Language Body as:

One Body, with two separate parts, with the following functions:

– Irish Language:

  1. promotion of the Irish language;
  2. facilitating and encouraging its use in speech and writing in public and private life in the South and, in the context of Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, in Northern Ireland where there is appropriate demand;
  3. advising both administrations, public bodies and other groups in the private and voluntary sectors;
  4. undertaking supportive projects, and grant-aiding bodies and groups as considered necessary;
  5. undertaking research, promotional campaigns, and public and media relations;
  6. developing terminology and dictionaries;
  7. supporting Irish-medium education and the teaching of Irish.

– Ulster Scots:

promotion of greater awareness and use of Ullans and of Ulster-Scots cultural issues, both within Northern Ireland and throughout the island.

18In March 2000, the UK Government signed up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This Charter is an international convention designed to protect and promote regional and minority languages. The government now has an obligation to meet commitments made in the Charter in respect of Irish and to a lesser extent Ulster Scots. Importantly, the Charter refers to ‘the Ulster-Scots language’.

19Another development from the GFA was the establishment within the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure of the Linguistic Diversity Unit to develop policy for the various linguistic communities and develop guidance for public servants to help them meet their obligations under the Council of Europe Charter (DCAL). Since the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, there has also been a shift in emphasis to the new plurilingual Northern Ireland which has resulted from the influx of former Soviet bloc countries in the wake of the enlargement of the Union. This aspect of linguistic diversity is now prominent in DCAL’s remit.

20The UK government is under obligation in international law to prepare a regular comprehensive report for the Council of Europe on developments under the Charter in respect of those languages under its protection. Among these languages are Welsh, Gaelic in Scotland and Irish and Ulster Scots in the North. The UK government should have submitted a report in July 2008 but there was an 11 month delay to the official monitoring process. The British government did not fulfill its duty because of disagreement at the Assembly on the contents of the report. Therefore, the British government was forced to announce that it would submit a report on the implementation of the Charter in Wales and Scotland, but without reference to 29 out of 36 paragraphs and sub paragraphs of the Charter which it has ratified for Irish and which relate to the implementation of the Charter in the North.

21The St Andrews Agreement (October 2006) committed the UK Government to work with the incoming Executive to protect and enhance the development of the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages. This commitment was consequently included in amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, placing duties on the Executive to adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture, heritage and language. It is notable that Ulster-Scots is referred to as a ‘Language’ in the St. Andrews Agreement. The DCAL website promises that a strategy for Indigenous or Regional Minority Languages will be presented to the Executive in due course.

22St Andrews also committed the UK Government to introduce Irish language legislation including an Irish Language Act based on the experience of Wales and the Republic of Ireland. DCAL published a consultation paper on possible approaches to legislation in December 2006. The Irish Languages Act has however been fiercely opposed by Unionist politicians and as yet, 4 years after the St Andrews Agreement to enact the legislation, there is still no Irish Language Act. In April 2010, the Council of Europe Committee of Experts published their report on the Application of the Charter in the United Kingdom (3rd monitoring cycle). The Committee “urges the UK authorities to provide an appropriate legislative base for the protection and promotion of Irish in Northern Ireland” (Council of Europe 2010: § 15). They also include in their recommendations:

“The St Andrews Agreement Act 2006 places a statutory duty on the NI Executive to adopt a strategy to enhance and protect the Irish language. So far no strategy has been adopted. However, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) intends to bring forward one strategy entitled ‘A Strategy for Indigenous or Regional Languages Minority Languages’, which is intended to be a single strategy for Irish and Ulster Scots. The Committee of Experts is concerned that the strategy will strive towards parity between the two languages and therefore not serve the needs of either the Irish-speakers or the Ulster-Scots speakers and will hold back the development of both languages.” (Council of Europe 2010: § 20).


23Northern Ireland developed a ‘step by step’ policy with respect to educational changes introduced by central government for England and Wales although its education system has a number of features that distinguish it from Great Britain (McEwen & Salters 1993: 133). In particular, selection at age 11, introduced through the Education Acts of the 1940s and mostly abandoned in favour of a comprehensive school system in Britain in the 1960s, has been retained in Northern Ireland. The Transfer Test, popularly called the 11+ examination, divides pupils between the roughly 35% who are accepted into Grammar schools, and the rest who attend Secondary, formerly called ‘Intermediate’, schools, with a few Comprehensive schools. The transfer arrangements are currently under review. The other distinguishing feature is the religious divide in education. State or controlled Primary, Grammar and Secondary schools cater predominately for the Protestant community, while the Maintained sector makes similar provision for the Catholic community. There is also the Integrated sector, which was set up in the 1970s to promote more harmonious relations between the Protestant and Catholic communities through educating children together. The post-primary Integrated sector is non-selective, and attracts pupils who fail to get a Grammar school place. The number of pupils attending Integrated schools is small, but growing. Finally, Irish-medium schools have emerged in Northern Ireland over the last 30 years, with some 4.000 pupils attending Irish-medium nursery, primary and post-primary schools.

24The census figures for Irish underline a tenacity explained by the position of the language in the schools of the Catholic community where there exists a widespread belief in the validity and importance of Irish. In contrast, there is an enduring suspicion and antipathy surrounding the language among the wider Unionist, Protestant community, to the extent that the language was dubbed the ‘green litmus test’ of community relations (Cultural Traditions Group 1994: 6). Unfortunately, other than some Integrated schools, not a single non-Catholic school offers Irish, not even those established Protestant ethos Grammar schools that attract an often sizeable number of Catholic pupils. The Irish language cultural organisation, Gael Linn (1997), did provide a cultural heritage programme that was taken up mostly in lower sixth form, the penultimate year in Grammar schools, as an enrichment course in non-Catholic schools. This programme proved to be popular, but unfortunately the introduction in 2001 of the Advanced Subsidiary examination to this particular school year has reduced such opportunities for diversity.

25It would be naïve, moreover, to believe that the Catholic school system has a policy of promoting Irish. Indeed, one could argue a scenario of the language often surviving rather than flourishing in a context where education was recognised by the Catholic minority community of Northern Ireland as the primary vehicle of upward mobility. The Catholic school system was only ever a channel for Irish culture where teachers had a personal interest in Irish language, music and history and who were encouraged, or at least not hindered, by their clerical management. (O’Connor 1993: 318).

26In more affluent areas many (parents and teachers) further suggest that when there is any clash between arts and science timetabling, Catholic schools tend to drop Irish first. Several people told me that they found outright hostility among other parents to the teaching of the Irish language in school. It seemed clear to them that the schools were making no counter-effort. (O’Connor 1993: 319).

27The first purpose-built Integrated school in the province was established in 1981. Integrated education became a Government priority during education reform in 1988 and remains a stated aim. The role of Irish in the Integrated school was considered by Spencer:

“The integrated school certainly aims to transmit the vast secular and religious culture which is held in common by the two major communities and to stress that they do hold it in common. But it has two further aims. It seeks to nurture within each pupil what is specific to the tradition of his own community. And it aims to show each pupil something of the specific tradition of the other community, so that, cognitively, he/she at least knows, understands and at best respects and appreciates it. Thus, the integrated school must offer the Irish language, Gaelic games, Irish dancing and music as options for all pupils.” (Spencer 1987: 108)

28Unfortunately, there has been a negativity in much of the Integrated movement’s approach to Irish (McEwen & Salters 1993: 23-25; O’Connor 2002: 53, 178). Most Integrated post-primary schools do not offer the language, or have only introduced it belatedly or as a subsidiary option.

29In the area of education, however, particular mention is made in the Good Friday Agreement of a statutory duty on the Department of Education ‘to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education’. Ironically, this emphasis on Irish-medium education, while a major advance for the language generally, runs the risk of leaving the position and promotion of Irish in English-medium schools in Northern Ireland in the shade. While the emergence of Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland holds significant potential for Irish and for the development of an Irish-speaking community outside the school environment, for most people access to the language is through the traditional English-medium school route.

30Until the 1960s in the UK “the learning of languages had hitherto been the preserve of the Grammar schools” (Moys 1996: 83). The change to comprehensive schools in Britain in the 1960s led to the emergence of a ‘Languages for All’ policy with languages made available across the ability range in post-primary schools. In Northern Ireland, the retention of the Grammar/Secondary divide meant that traditionally only the Grammar school minority of pupils studied a second language, mostly French, although Irish was commonly taught in Maintained/Catholic Secondary schools, as well as in all Catholic Grammar schools.

31The ‘Languages for All’ philosophy was adopted in Northern Ireland’s post-primary schools as well, with mixed results. In Britain, “for many pupils the experience of language learning did not incline them to continue once the subject became optional, and around 70% of all pupils abandoned the learning of a foreign language by the age of fourteen” (Moys 1996: 84). In Northern Ireland, the drop-off was notable in the non-Grammar schools. The Northern Ireland Inspectorate reported in 1990 that while a majority of pupils embarked upon language studies in Year 1 post-primary, by Year 3 only one-quarter of these schools provided modern languages for all pupils (DENI, 1990: § 4.45). Optional language teaching in primary schools was permitted and one can still argue the cross-curricular potential and cultural heritage relevance of Irish, such as place and personal names, dialect and pronunciation, already highlighted in the 1974 Primary Teachers’ Guide: “These factors are of considerable help in the teaching of Irish and confer certain advantages no other second language can claim to the same extent in Ireland” (DENI 1974: 106).

32There is a current movement to promote primary languages generally in the United Kingdom. The main focus currently in Northern Ireland is on a peripatetic project for Spanish. The primary project now includes Irish, and in the goal of inclusivity, Polish for local Northern Ireland children. The difficulty with this is that by the time this project was introduced in 2008, many of the Polish community had gone back to Poland.

Education Reform 1989

33As a result of the legislation enacted in the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order in 1989, the equivalent of the 1988 Education Reform Act in England and Wales, a common Northern Ireland Curriculum was introduced on a phased basis from 1990 for all pupils in Northern Ireland with a Modern Language compulsory for pupils embarking upon post-primary education from 1992. Just as in England and Wales, compulsory education in Northern Ireland is divided into 4 Key Stages, over 12 years until age 16:

34Key Stage 1 (age 4-8, school years 1-4) Primary

35Key Stage 2 (age 8-11, school years 5-7) Primary

36Key Stage 3 (age 11-14, school years 8-10) Post-primary

37Key Stage 4 (age 14-16, school years 11-12) Post-primary.y

38Key Stage 4 leads to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) usually taken in six to ten subjects. The first year post-compulsory leads to the Advanced Subsidiary (A/S) examination (4 subjects recommended) and the final school year leads to the Advanced GCE or A-Level (3 subjects the norm), which determines entry into higher education.

Welsh in Education in Wales

39The Welsh Language Act of 1993 provides the legal basis for the Welsh Assembly Government’s vision of creating a bilingual Wales. Iaith Pawb: A National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales (2003) stated that the Welsh Assembly Government wanted Wales to be a truly bilingual nation where “people may choose to live their lives through the medium of either or both Welsh or English, and where the presence of the two languages is source of pride and strength”. The Welsh language is now widely used in education in line with this aspiration.

40Welsh was included in the National Curriculum following the Education Reform Act 1988, and became a compulsory subject for all pupils in Wales in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 (up to 14 years of age) in 1990. From September 1999 onwards Welsh also became compulsory at Key Stage 4 (up to age 16) in English-medium schools. As is the case with all other national curriculum subjects, Welsh may be temporarily disapplied for a pupil, under sections 364-367 of the 1996 Education Act. Many pupils choose to continue with Welsh in their A-levels and college years. All Welsh universities teach some courses in Welsh (most notably Bangor University and Aberystwyth University) and all FE and HE institutions, like all local education authorities, are required to produce and implement a Welsh Language Scheme dealing specifically with education.

41All Local Education Authorities in Wales have schools providing bilingual or Welsh-medium education. Local authorities state how they intend to promote and develop access to Welsh-medium education, on the basis of forecast need. There is no statutory definition for ‘Welsh-speaking’ primary schools. For the purposes of data presentation, information is provided according to whether Welsh is the sole or main medium of instruction of first and second language pupils.

42‘Welsh speaking’ secondary schools are currently defined for the purposes of the school curriculum in Section 105(7) of the Education Act 2002 which states: “[…] a school is Welsh-speaking if more than one half of the following subjects are taught (wholly or partly) in Welsh – (a) religious education, and (b) the subjects other than English and Welsh which are foundation subjects in relation to pupils at the school”.

43In 2007 the Welsh Government committed to ‘creating a national Welsh-medium Education Strategy to develop effective provision from nursery through to further and higher education, backed up by an implementation programme’. In response to this commitment the Welsh-medium Education Strategy was launched in April 2010. Some 20% of all pupils in Wales are being taught at Welsh-medium schools, up from 16% in the 1990s.

Effects of ‘modern languages’ policy in Northern Ireland

44In 1992 a modern language was phased in as a compulsory subject for the first time in post-primary education in Northern Ireland (first examined for all in 1996). The aspiration to make languages more widely available was prompted in no small part by the UK joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. Unfortunately, since that date the position of Irish in Northern Ireland’s schools had been seriously undermined by the failure of the Republic of Ireland’s government to seek recognition for Irish as a working language when they joined the EEC in the same year. No adequate explanation has ever been given for this decision, which was not provoked by pressure from Brussels (Ó Murchú 2002: 9). In 2004, however, the Irish Government sought official working language status for Irish in the European Union. This status was granted by the Union in June 2005 and raised hopes that the position and status of Irish in Northern Ireland’s schools and society would improve significantly in the future. The disadvantage suffered hitherto by Irish in Northern Ireland education was clearly exemplified by Dr Mawhinney, the education minister at the time of Education Reform, when he said “Parents who choose to have their children take Irish instead of one of them (European mainland languages), at a time when the importance of the European dimension is growing, should think carefully about the future consequences of such a decision” (Irish News newspaper, 22 March 1989). Another negative effect is that the Northern Ireland Curriculum requires post-primary schools to offer one of French, Irish in English-medium Schools 401 German, Italian or Spanish. Only then may they offer Irish as a choice (GB & NI 1989: § 5 (5); Schedule 1; Schedule 2).

45However, the most significant development for language teaching in recent years has been that languages, after just over a decade as a compulsory subject at Key Stages 3 and 4, are no longer compulsory at Key stage 4, 14 years to 16. This has been the case in England since 2002, and in Northern Ireland since 2007. In other words, pupils are now only required to do 3 years of modern language study in post-primary education – the lowest compulsory language education in Europe.

46There is still an area within the curriculum called Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in England, “Modern Languages” in Northern Ireland to allow for Irish. But within this area, there are the competing language subjects of French, German, Spanish, Irish, where the various languages are joined in an internecine competition for a shrinking slice of a crowded timetable. It reminds one of the Irish phrases, Cogadh na gCarad, the War of Friends, Civil War.

47It would also be naïve to believe that the whole staffroom shares the concerns of the linguists about the pressure on languages. As Northern Ireland, unlike England, has retained selection at age 11, we have a Grammar school/Secondary school divide which shows a clear division of language uptake along lines of academic ability and social class. In most secondary school staffrooms, serving the less academic and often less economically well-off, you will find teachers who welcome languages becoming optional, since many pupils find languages difficult and results are relatively poor – and these teachers include many language teachers who find teaching to less academic, demotivated pupils stressful and a strain.

48The Joint Council for Qualifications and the yearly Language Trends research carried out by CILT the National centre for Languages trace a sharp fall in the numbers taking languages at GCSE in the UK as a whole, despite a significant increase in the take-up of Spanish which has benefited from a policy to diversify to languages other than French (Neil & McKendry 2006) and with the support of strong marketing from Spanish educational and cultural organisations. In Northern Ireland, Irish is struggling to keep its numbers up while French, and particularly German, have shown a marked decrease. Italian has practically disappeared from our schools. Spanish, on the other hand, has progressed strongly since compulsory languages were first examined in 1996.

Table 2 - Number of GCSE entries in Northern Ireland by Language (percentage change over period in brackets).

Table 2 - Number of GCSE entries in Northern Ireland by Language (percentage change over period in brackets).

49While the general trends behind the drop in languages nationally and locally are similar, there are some important local differences which make the Northern Ireland experience significant.

50As stated above, Northern Ireland still retains academic selection at Age 11. The successful pupils go to grammar schools, which have traditionally had a strong reputation for supporting languages. Other pupils go to secondary schools where the language learning tradition has not been so strong. Since languages became optional at Key Stage 4 in Northern Ireland in 2007, there has been an almost calamitous withdrawal from languages in secondary schools at age 14. Most alarmingly, grammar schools are now withdrawing from compulsory languages in Key Stage 4, age 14-16.

51This letter was received from a Grammar school headmaster in June in 2009:

“Hello Eugene,
As a committed European and a committed linguist I am increasingly concerned at the rapid drop in interest in the “traditional” modern languages and I know this concern is shared by other grammar school principals. We are beginning to wonder if, for example, French still deserves to hold a slot in the regular timetable, or should it be offered as an extra-curricular activity.
I hear students question why we are not offering Polish and they argue that it would be more useful to them than French.
As schools move on to provide the 24 subjects at GCSE and 27 at A level (which will be required by law from 2013) perhaps modern languages will struggle to attract the interest of pupils who have other options available to them.
Maybe it’s time to inject a fresh approach, to give pupils ‘tasters’ of other European and world languages, to help them appreciate the relevance and value of certain languages – rather than force-feeding French and producing the resistance so evident in so many schools these days.” (Personal communication).

52The role of government policy and cultural institute support is vital. French cultural institutions have been quietly working as before; the Goethe Institute moved much of its activities to eastern Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the language has suffered in our schools as a result. Irish has been hidebound by the political appointees approach to Foras na Gaeilge, and Spanish support for their language is remarkable. The policy is strong and the money and resources are available for Spanish through the Consejería de Educación and a proactive approach to European project funding.

53When one of the education board officials responsible for the primary languages project mentioned above was asked why French was being ignored in the project, the answer was: “French has had its chance. It’s time to do something else”.

54It can get worse. Some years ago, when Spanish had a much lower profile in our schools than today, the author had the misfortune to be in a coffee queue behind a senior Hispanist academic and a senior education board languages officer who were discussing how Spanish could be promoted in our schools. To my horror, one of them said, to the enthusiastic agreement of the other: “The problem is Irish: If we could get rid of it!”.

55One should be concerned by this ‘weather vane’ approach, where policies and promotion of particular languages change as language popularity shifts. There are also of course political agendas at play as well. But ephemeral enthusiasm is not a firm basis of policy for developing personal and national competences. Nor are short-sighted academic institution policies. In the last ten years, the author’s university, a member of the select Russell group of UK Universities, has closed its departments of Greek, Latin, Slavonic studies, Italian and, in 2009, its department of German. Yet in Europe, German is the language spoken by most people as their first language and Germany is the main trade market of the United Kingdom within the EU. To have suggested as recently as five years ago that we would close down German would have been unimaginable. If the imperative for introducing languages into the National and Northern Ireland Curricula was on economic grounds, which it was, how can the UK system promote Spanish, but abandon German? Is it acceptable to say that the enthusiasm for Spanish is a ‘Lifestyle Choice’, as a Department of Education official recently suggested to the author?

56One of the advantages of speaking a minority language is that its speakers cannot be and have never been complacent. One has always to justify one’s choice and use of these languages language, whereas the recent challenge to the large curricular languages in schools has caught many of their enthusiasts unawares. Another challenge in the English-speaking world is to know which language or languages to choose. Recent revision of the curriculum in Northern Ireland emphasises Language Awareness and Knowledge about Language (Northern Ireland Curriculum website: 30), focusing on language in all its aspects, not just on a second language as a school subject. There are particular cultural and environmental arguments for indigenous regional and minority languages in the primary curriculum (McKendry: 1999), but to see the regional language as an opportunity to provide a portal to other languages. There is also the potential of Esperanto as a propaedeutic – a preparation for learning.

57The development of positive attitudes and transferable language learning skills are to be emphasised. We are experiencing a paradigm shift in language learning in an age where, other than English, the learning certainties around traditional curriculum languages have been dislodged, but an age also where ‘How to learn’ is valued, rather than just telling pupils what, or which language they ought to learn. Curriculum philosophy now regards the developing of the Capacity to Learn as equally valid as the content of a syllabus (Northern Ireland Curriculum website: section 1).

58But within any considerations of teaching and learning in education and the development of post-Good Friday Agreement society in Northern Ireland, the ‘Green Litmus Test’ of the Irish Language remains. In his address to the Unionist Party conference in 2000, the then leader of the party, David Trimble said that “culture is going to be a political battleground”. In a battleground there is always an enemy, and the linguistic enemy for Unionism is, regrettably, still Irish. Ulster Scots (Ullans, Lallans?) is just a weapon in the war.


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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 2 - Number of GCSE entries in Northern Ireland by Language (percentage change over period in brackets).
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k


Linguiste, directeur du Northern Ireland CILT (National Center for languages), Queen’s University Belfast.

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