herald

Monday 5 December 2016

I'm very proud that both my children will grow up fluent in our national language

Bernard Dunne at the opening of Gaelscoil na Giuise at Firhouse Community Centre with student Alex Ni Cheallaigh. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Bernard Dunne at the opening of Gaelscoil na Giuise at Firhouse Community Centre with student Alex Ni Cheallaigh. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When I lived in Los Angeles back in 2001, I noticed something quite alarming about myself.

LA was, and is, full of many different nationalities, much like Ireland is today. When these people from different nations met with someone from their own country they immediately conversed in their mother tongue.

Naire - or shame - came upon me when I realised that I could not speak my own language.

Gaeilge is a funny thing. It's our country's national tongue and we start learning it from the age of five and continue learning it throughout our next 13 years in school.

Most, including myself, end up leaving school with little or no comprehension of the language. We would have a puzzled look on our face if someone spoke to us on the street with our own language.

We use excuses like it is too hard to learn, it's not taught well, it's rammed down our throats and that it is no good to you later for getting a job.

This last excuse is probably the most problematic for the language to thrive. When faced with the choice of learning the language of our ancestors for an increased sense of pride and belonging, or learning a language which will help one gain employment, it's clear which choice people are making.

Pride, identity or a feeling of belonging is something we only start to feel when we get older.

It was in LA when I got this sense of lacking identity. What was it that made me proud to be an Irishman?

Humour

Was it that sense of community in our neighbourhoods, our humour, the fact that we have many famous poets and scholars, our lovely countryside or the way we punch above our weight internationally in sport? Or was it the fact that we are a resilient people, who, having faced many challenges still manage to raise ourselves up and smile?

All of these things make me proud to be Irish.

Our language though is as important as anything else to me and my identity as an Irish person.

It's as much a part of our country as our music, Gaelic games, art and geography.

I had to travel the world to realise this.

Young children in school should be immersed in and taught in the Irish language.

I'm talking about kids from five to 12 going through primary school with Irish. After that they can decide what they want to do but they will be fluent, so the studying of it in secondary school could become a specialist study.

This immersion in the language will help give young people a sense of pride in their language, culture and country.

Three years ago I did a show called Brod Club.

It was a national campaign aimed at trying to encourage others who, like myself, had little or no Irish but wanted to improve their vocabulary even a basic level.

To this day I still get people coming up and trying to talk with me with whatever Irish that they have. And the big theme from most of these conversations is that they wished they had worked more on their gaeilge.

Des Bishop did fantastic work with the language when he made the programme In the Name of the Fada.

Moving to a gaeltacht for a year, he demonstrated that even a man who did not have to study Irish in school could learn the language.

Sometimes I think our hang-ups about the language are more drawn from the past and stories that kids grow up hearing.

I believe that we have to look to the future with not just our language but also our identity.

There are now many new ethnic groups in Ireland and many languages spoken by these new Irish citizens.

Irish identity is changing and maybe so too is our relationship with our language.

We need to try to encourage the language to move along with this change.

Our young people need to be given more chances to use their language. A 40-minute class a day or every second day isn't enough to encourage young people to speak it.

They need inspiration from social events where the language can be used.

Language can help people identify more with the cultures of this country. But they need to be exposed to the language in a fun and engaging way.

I understand there are those who feel the language is not needed as part of our schools, our lives or our identity.

It's different strokes for different folks I suppose, as I feel our language is hugely important to us as a nation.

I take pride in the fact that both my children will grow up fluent in our national language and I believe that it is a gift that will keep on giving in their lives.

It's about preserving our culture, our history, and our identity. I feel that I am doing something, however little, to try and help this.

Is mise le meas.

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