Tá Gaeilge agat?

16 Apr

When an American enters a new culture, one of the first questions that person is always asked is “Do you speak the language?” Americans do hold a stereotype that we don’t speak any language other than English and we expect everyone else in the world to at least have a basic understanding of English so they can accommodate us. So when I told my friends I was going to Ireland, a common response was “Hey, at least they speak English there!” When I told them that I planned to try to learn Irish (no, no it’s not called Gaelic, I’d clarify) while I was in Dublin, they often asked me why.

This is why. I wanted to make Lady Gaga covers in Irish.

But here are the real reasons why I wanted to learn Irish:

First, I’ve always thought it sounded really interesting and beautiful. At least it did in the old folk ballads I’d hear; it sounds remarkably less beautiful when I’m speaking, trying to retrain my vocal cords to make sounds they’d spent 21 years being conditioned not to make by only speaking English and occasionally Spanish.

Second, I knew that Irish was one of the national languages of Ireland, but I didn’t really understand its historical significance until arriving here and learning about Irish Nationalism in my classes. I knew that it would appear on street signs and public transportation, and I at least wanted to be able to sound out words even if I didn’t understood what they meant. I thought if I could at least understand the alphabet enough to pronounce words, I could slowly start becoming somewhat literate in the Irish visible on the streets. Those dreams of understanding the alphabet have since vanished somewhat, as time and again we ask our tutor, “Why does a bh sound like a v in this word and a w in this word?” and he’d have no set grammatical rule for us to follow. But I guess the same question could be asked about English – why don’t cough, rough, and through rhyme?

That question is often asked of me. My third reason for wanting to learn Irish is that I am fascinated by language acquisition theory, and am in the midst of a two-year thesis project seeking to discover more effective methods for teaching elementary school students English as second language (Ba mhaith liom a bheith i mo mhúinteoir). I thought that in order to best understand my audience and their needs, it was important for me to put myself back in she shoes of a language learner because I hadn’t taken an introductory Spanish course since I was 14. Staring at completely unrecognizable words and being expected to read and pronounce them was something I hadn’t done in years, and I felt as though it wouldn’t be fair for me to try to teach English without having this experience again.

I think that the semester has more than fulfilled my third reason for wanting to take an Irish language class. The discontinuity between how words are spelled and how they are spoken has given me significant difficulty, as I feel able to speak far better than I could write. I can easily say, “Taw drey-fur awan agum,” but writing “Tá deirfiúr amháin agam” is a completely different story. The written part of our exam, fortunately, will contain a word bank with all the words spelled correctly, so I don’t have to do as much memorization of spelling words and can focus more on speaking. I imagine many of the students learning English feel the same way; it doesn’t matter if they’re thinking threw or through when they’re having a conversation about baseball – they’re still pronouncing the word correctly.

But our they really?

But our they really?

The connections I’ve drawn from learning Irish this semester and my research that I’m working on back home have grown deeper than just the comparisons I’ve made between my own experiences and those of the students I work with at home. The pedagogy for learning Irish in schools is frequently discussed as ineffective; I’ve heard testimony to this point from Conradh na Gaeilge, our in class session about Irish language radio, my roommate who is studying Irish as her primary course at UCD, Korinna’s host mom who is a teacher, and my Irish folklore lecturer as she explained to the international students why a resounding groan erupted from the Irish contingent of the class at the mention of Peig Sayers.

The most famous female storyteller in Ireland. Who wouldn't want to learn about this sweet lady?

The most famous female storyteller in Ireland. Who wouldn’t want to learn about this sweet lady?

Many of the methods of teaching Irish that I’ve heard people describe sound similar to pedagogies that were used in the United States to teach English as a second language that have now been discredited. Teaching endless streams of grammar and vocabulary that don’t have any real application to everyday life via the Grammar Translation Method of the 1950s and 60s is not an effective method of teaching a language because it gives the students no incentive to want to speak, read, or write it. Having a conversation about the furniture in your kitchen or the days of the week is simply not exciting. Students leave Irish secondary schools able to talk about meaningless things, but unable to have a spontaneous conversation in Irish about something important that isn’t carefully structured and graded. One of the most important ideas I’ve learned from my research that I plan to put to the test over the next year is the notion that students want to talk about things that matter to them – their beliefs, their goals, and their opinions about what’s going on in the world. Feeling like you need to speak the new language in order to share what you are thinking or feeling will help students see the second language as an important means of communication rather than a requirement for graduation. This idea of connecting language learning to wider contexts in the speakers life derives from Faltis and Coulter’s “Commitments in Practice” they describe in their well-known educational manual, Teaching English Learners and Immigrant Students in Secondary Schools.

Very useful book... if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Very useful book… if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Granted, comparing learning Irish in a country that overwhelmingly speaks English is very different than learning English in a country that overwhelmingly speaks English. The need for students to learn English in America is undeniably more pressing than the need for students to learn Irish in Ireland. While the urgency of learning Irish is unlikely to change, making the language more socially and culturally relevant to the younger generations will inspire students to see being bilingual as a privilege, not a requirement. I certainly see my time spent learning Irish while in Dublin a privilege. I may not be able to have a conversation about anything but my family, my apartment, my hobbies, and different foods I like, but to answer the question in the title of this reflection: Tá mé ag foghlaim  – and that makes me happy.

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