Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 March 2006

1:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)

Tá rudaí le rá agam sa díospóireacht seo, ach tá mé níos compordaí ag labhairt i mBéarla. Mar sin leanfaidh mé ar aghaidh sa teanga sin. I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place today and hope I will not attract too much of the Minister's ire. I will chiefly address issues relating to education and the Irish language and the difficulties presented by the current system. I do not detect an urgency in addressing the serious problems in respect of the decline of the Irish language as one which people in this country are comfortable speaking, which has been referred to by previous speakers.

Having been educated in the system, having a great love of the Irish language and having attended various Irish classes as an adult, I have a reasonable knowledge of the language. Like Deputy Boyle, I have been assisted by representatives of TG4 and Radio na Gaeltachta when I have attempted to make points in Irish. I will continue to express myself using the amount of Irish I possess whenever the opportunity arises. I believe I am representative of a broad section of the community which is very anxious to develop the use of the Irish language among citizens, be they children at school or adults. My attitude to the Irish language is very positive and I wish to see more urgency on the part of the Government in respect of this issue and greater communication between Departments. I am not sure how much co-operation exists between the Departments of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Education and Science in respect of making progress on this issue.

My colleague, Deputy O'Shea, has referred to the lack of a vision statement or Green Paper on the subject or an invitation from the Government to discuss proposals. There have been many speeches and acknowledgements from the Minister that a problem exists. He has suggested that parents must speak more Irish to ensure their children speak more Irish. However, it is not good enough simply to tell parents that it is their responsibility. We need proactive Government measures that will treat this issue with the urgency it requires.

For example, if one reads the Staid Reatha na Scoileanna Gaeltachta, Study of Gaeltacht Schools 2004, one can see that there is real concern about the decline in Irish in the Gaeltacht and Gaeltacht schools. According to the study, "A significant number of Gaeltacht schools have already conceded defeat in the face of the difficulties and have switched to teaching through the medium of English". It states: "It would appear that schools have not been given the support, advice and resources that would allow them to develop such policies". Yet, one also witnesses the significant growth in naonraí, gaelscoileanna and gaelcoláistí, which is a very positive development. There is a clear decline in proficiency in Irish in regular schools. The three strands are attempting to fit into a curriculum that puts them all in one straitjacket and, as many people have argued, does not place sufficient emphasis on the spoken language.

We need a properly thought-out approach to these issues. It is not possible to progress while the three different groups, which have different levels of proficiency at different stages in the system, try to fit into the same curriculum and examination structure. The system is not working and must be immediately addressed. In that context, I will quote from a paper entitled The Future of Languages in Irish Education: Policy, Curriculum and Pedagogy, which was produced for the Royal Irish Academy on 31 May 2005. The paper includes observations on how language is learned, which we must grasp before we deal with the issue. The paper addresses common problems with language curricula. It states:

They are rarely if ever based on a coherent model of gradually developing communicative proficiency, in which the different language skills are related to one another in a clear progression. Educational systems typically set their sights unrealistically high. As a result, learners are too often expected to be able to perform communicative tasks without having developed the underlying linguistic competence on which successful spontaneous performance depends.

The paper goes on to discuss how people learn to speak a language first and learn to read in a language before they learn to write it and the need to progress in this way.

We expect children in regular schools who do not hear Irish spoken at home to progress too quickly in our system in terms of writing and grammatical skills. On the other hand, children who grow up in a Gaeltacht home where Irish is spoken can move much faster and have internalised the language so that it is natural for them to express themselves in Irish. This area must be worked on before progress can be achieved. If we do not do so, we will simply be talking in circles and trying to make everyone fit into the same box.

I will refer briefly to the difficulties experienced by teachers in schools in the Gaeltacht. These teachers do not have the appropriate resources. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science heard a presentation that dealt with this issue. These teachers are struggling with the resources and supports available to them. I will quote from an e-mail I received from an individual who deals with teachers in the Gaeltacht. According to the e-mail:

They were constantly telling us that a French or German teacher can come into class with a plethora of extremely well packaged and interesting aids, whereas they are depending on literature which belongs to another era. This is really where we need to begin.

The Minister is on record as having spoken about the decline in the use of Irish in Gaeltacht schools. Until we give them the appropriate resources and teaching aids and let them compete properly with French and German in Gaeltacht schools and schools in other areas, we will get nowhere.

A considerable amount of material in the curriculum is probably more suited to a specialist section or subject in the leaving certificate specifically designed for people who are fluent, native Irish speakers. Such a section or subject could include Irish literature. In respect of people who are non-native speakers, such material should be reserved for third level study. We should aim to ensure that people can speak fluently and write relatively fluently.

In that context, very little emphasis is placed on oral examinations. If it is not done in the examination, people will not do it in the schools. If marks for oral proficiency are not given at both junior and leaving certificate level, people will concentrate on written work because that is where they will pick up marks and, knowing grammar, as Deputy O'Shea noted, will be their focus. The focus should be positive rather than negative. At the moment, people lose marks if they make mistakes in the tuiseal ginideach in their essays when the focus should be placed on what they do well.

I see no evidence that the Government is taking any of this on board. There has been much talk about it, which has not been reflected in what is happening in the curriculum and examination structure. I am aware that reform is taking place within language curricula in general and that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is examining the area. We need a sense of urgency with regard to the Irish language.

I will now address measures that are working well. I have spoken about naonraí, gaelscoileanna and gaelcoláistí. TG4 is another example of how the mass media can help people feel comfortable again with the Irish language. I am unaware of the statistics but I estimate that a very large section of the Irish population watches TG4 on a relatively regular basis. These people do not regard themselves as being particularly proficient in Irish but can follow what is going on in the programmes. Whether it is "Rugbaí Beo" or whatever, people will watch because they have an interest in a particular area. The programme is very imaginative and original on TG4. I pay tribute to my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, for everything he did when he was Minister in that regard.

To sum up, I feel passionately about the fact that Irish is being failed at school level. There is still much goodwill towards the language. There will be more calls for the ending of the obligatory element of Irish participation in the schools unless the changes are now made to make it a language that people want to learn and to speak.


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