04:01 Fri 08 Jun 2007
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When I moved to Ireland as a kid, I really didn’t like learning the Irish language. It was difficult and awkward, and on top of that was bound up with a number of other problems.

It was foreign, even more foreign than the many other differences between New York and Dublin. I wasn’t particularly happy to be in Ireland, considered it a temporary environment, and was leery of the strange and clearly impractical language.

I was having trouble adjusting to the very different school system/teaching style, and my study of Irish suffered as a result. It was the only subject that I was behind in, but the teaching of Irish was troubled and largely unsuccessful even for my classmates, so I didn’t get much additional aid. My father did try to help me with it.

I’ve always had some issues with learning other languages, because inability to express myself precisely drives me nuts—it feels simply wrong to not be able to do so, and I react to that feeling by trying rather hard to avoid it. That wasn’t as bad as a child, and I don’t remember that from learing languages before moving to Ireland, but something about the additional pressures, the unfamiliarity of the language (which is rather different from English, French, German, and Spanish, the languages I’d had prior schooling in), and the teaching methodology made that frustration-at-inarticulacy flare up quite strongly.

Although many other people in the class (indeed, in the country) had terrible trouble with learning Irish, I still felt my newness to it as another marker of difference. There were a bunch of those, the primary one being my accent. I didn’t react against the Irish language the way I reacted against picking up a Hiberno-English accent, but there was some spillover, and it didn’t help that a New Yorker attempting to speak Irish sounds entirely different from a class of Hiberno-English speakers, no matter how bad they might be at it also.

Another factor, one which had an effect on an entire generation, was the powerful association between the Irish language and rural Ireland. I was from New York, I was going to school in Dublin—connections with rural living were non-existent for me. Nor did I desire any. In this I was hardly alone. The concept of “coolness” was already instilled in all of us at that age, and it was obvious that it didn’t come from rural areas anywhere, never mind those in Ireland. It was urban, all about cities, technology, modernity. Irish was actively associated with rural life, tradition, conservatism. Apart from the “coolness” factor, it was also very damaging that the texts we learned from appeared to have no connection at all to the environments or lives that we experienced. This wasn’t true everywhere, or at all times—but it was certainly true in the Dublin primary and secondary schools I was in throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of my classmates had their interest in the language killed off by those associations, and I was no exception.

On top of all this, I also had a terrible, terrible teacher the first year I was in Ireland. She couldn’t do that much harm to my other subjects, since my US schooling had already put me ahead of my classmates in those, but she certainly managed to damage any chances there were of progress or interest in Irish in that first year I was exposed to it.

I was more interested in it in secondary (grades 7“12) school. I was more accepting of Ireland as a permanent home at that point, and beginning to try to figure out what in its culture was interesting. Sadly, I again had some terrible teachers, and my aversion to the frustration of trying to express myself in other languages had become stronger. I did spend three summers in Irish-speaking areas (in sort-of summer camps), and my time in the Gaelteacht improved my grasp of the language immeasurably—up to the point where I could pass exams at the basic level of Irish. I was able to recognize that the language and the culture were being served poorly by a terrible, backward curriculum, but I wasn’t able to get past that and make any real effort to learn it better.

Since leaving school and starting university, I have more or less never spoken Irish in any real sense. What little of it I had has withered away. Of the three foreign languages I took (Irish, French, German), it is clearly the weakest (which, given my ineptitude with the other two, is saying something).

There’s no need for Irish in my life, of course. The daily language of Ireland is English. While I know some people with excellent Irish, I don’t think I know anyone whose first language is Irish. I’ve needed German and French when in Berlin and Paris; I’ve never needed Irish. So once out of an educational system in which it was mandatory, there was no reason to go near it.

But over the last several years, I’ve been thinking about trying to learn it. I’ve intellectually recognized its cultural importance since I was a teen, and recently that’s begun to translate into an emotional recognition also. There’s a fair-weather aspect to it also: in the 80s and 90s, I thought it was a dying language that the Irish were sadly going to leave behind, whereas in fact interest in it has increased significantly in the last decade.

I’m also starting to think about doing conscious work on some of my heritage—for whatever reason, it no longer seems sufficient to continue the project of Tadhg-as-cultural-amalgam, but rather it feels necessary to also examine and engage specific cultural strands directly and singly (this is also part of why I’m occasionally tempted to try to learn Polish).

So now I’m thinking seriously about trying to learn Irish. It might come to nothing, or sit on the back burner for several years, but I’m a lot more interested than I have been in the past. The next step would probably be to introduce a dose of realism into the idea, and to set myself some very achievable goals (otherwise I’ll get too ambitious, then get frustrated, then abandon the whole thing). The key is to find some achievable goals that aren’t too similar to what I did in school, because those associations aren’t going to help. So, I need to figure out what’s feasible given (at most) a couple of hours per week.

2 Responses to “Gaeilge”

  1. mollydot Says:

    I’ve always hated Irish too, but have been toying with the idea attempting to learn it again. I blame glitzfrau and biascut.

    Speaking of being occasionally tempted to learn Polish, I found it funny that I read your post just after I’d posted the Polish word I learnt today: http://mollydot.livejournal.com/160174.html

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I’ll have to ask a Polish friend about how to use koniec.

    Incidentally, I think it seems entirely fair to blame glitzfrau and biascut. Why not?

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