18 May 20016
By Elaine Murphy
Speaking in the Dáil Deputy Sherlock remarked: “Let us get away from hackneyed debate and encourage more to speak Irish.”
Gabhaim buíochas as an deis labhairt anseo inniu. Níl mo chuid Gaeilge ró-mhaith, ach táim ag cleachtadh. I mBunreacht na hÉireann aithnítear an Ghaeilge már ár dteanga phríomha don Stát. Samhlaítear dúinn go bhfuil dualgas mór ar ghach Rialtas acmhainní a chur ar fáil agus tionscnaimh a chur in áit chun an teanga a chosaint agus í a fhorbairt go hiomlán.
The Labour Party recognises the central place of the Irish language in our heritage, our history and as a rich resource for daily life. The Constitution explicitly recognises Irish as the first language of the State and it is our view that this places certain responsibilities on all governments to vigorously support the protection and development of the language.
I want to take a slightly different tack today. I speak through the medium of English. I feel strongly that Irish is often presented in a binary fashion, typified by those who have the language and those who do not. The last census recorded over 160 languages being spoken in this country and we have a multiplicity of nationalities here now. I believe that in the globalised society we live in, we must recognise the attempts by those who are seeking to encourage bilingualism and multilingualism within this island. It is not about one language being better than another, but about using languages efficiently. It is also about seeking to encourage greater awareness of the critical importance of language learning, not only in terms of increasing employment possibilities and meeting industry needs, but also its broader value in the spheres of education, the arts and in the context of supporting social cohesion and intercultural understanding.
In that context, Irish has a significant role to play, in terms of encouraging multilingualism and bilingualism. A group called One Voice for Languages focuses on the importance of all languages, including Irish, being valued in a real sense and beyond the tokenism that often inculcates debate in this House and elsewhere. This group focuses on three basic statements.
Mar a chreidimid: Tá teangacha luachmhar, riachtanach agus spreagúil. What we believe: Languages are essential, valuable and exciting.
A bhfuil uainn: Ceisteanna teanga a ardú ag an leibhéal is airde rialtais agus a chur ar a shúile do phobal uile na tíre. What we want: Language issues to be raised at the highest levels of government and to be brought to the consciousness of the country as a whole.
Mar a dhéanfaimid: Gníomhú mar ghlór cumhachtach agus mar shlógadh dóibh siúd go léir ar spéis leo ceisteanna teanga. What we will do: Act as a rallying point and a powerful voice for all interested in language issues.
Globalisation has changed our experience of language diversity. There are now few places in the world in which multiple languages are not present and in which people do not make use of repertoires that draw on several different languages. As a former Minister with responsibility for research and innovation, I have found there is ample research evidence regarding the numerous benefits of language learning. For example, in the Irish context research has demonstrated that bilingualism in Irish and English enhances mathematics performance and that the Irish language lends itself to the better understanding of mathematical concepts. There have been repeated statements from high-level industry leaders, employment specialists, advisory bodies and experienced linguists on the deficit in appropriate language skills and the important role the learning of other languages, of which Irish is one, can play in the improvement of literacy levels. An appreciation needs to be fostered, at Government level and among the wider public, on the significant cognitive, social, developmental, cultural and linguistic enhancement that can be attained through the learning of Irish or other additional languages. We need to improve the teaching and learning of science, mathematics and engineering and research shows that where students are educated through the medium of Irish, and where they live in bilingual communities, their learning outcomes are a lot better. We should focus more on those opportunities. I speak for thousands of people throughout this country when I say I do not know if I will ever be fluent but I would love to be able to conduct my everyday business in a bilingual way. Perhaps we need to focus more on the opportunities therein.
I am glad to say I live in an area where, over the past five years, there has been an explosion in the number of places in Gaelscoileanna and there are two Gaelscoileanna under construction in my constituency, in Mainistir Fhear Maí and Mainistir na Corann. We are very proud of that and we want to ensure that there is a continuum between what students learn at primary level and what they learn at post-primary level. We need to do more to encourage people in communities like Mallow, Fermoy and Midleton, where we have these Gaelscoileanna, to use the language in their everyday transactions on the street or through interactions with government agencies.
We need to widen the debate and recognise that there are over 160 languages spoken in this country. We need to ensure we target resources in a way that ensures that more people speak the language or, at least, are inculcated with the language during everyday usage, and this is a big challenge. We are all wedded to the 20-year strategy and if we witness economic growth we need to ensure the resources are made available so that the plan bears fruit.
Every time there is a debate on the Irish language somebody gets up and says somebody has such an amount of proficiency and somebody else does not. Let us get away from that binary, hackneyed debate and broaden it out so that we can get more people actually speaking Irish. Let us encourage people to speak the language more and if we broaden the debate we can also encourage the use of bilingualism in everyday life. That is a very reasonable proposition.