Can foreign speakers help the Irish language survive?

A growing number of Irish Americans are forging stronger ties to their Hibernian ancestors by learning Irish

For over a century, activists have been trying to save the Irish language. Can foreign speakers help keep it alive?

At a dimly-lit bar in Washington DC, a smattering of professionals gathered around a table to drink beer and speak Irish, with levels of varying success.

They all represented current or former students of Ronan Connolly's Irish language classes. Mr Connolly, an Irish native, has been teaching evening Irish classes for more than two years.

The students live thousands of miles away from Ireland. Some haven't visited in years, if at all. The group is not much bigger than a rambunctious family dinner party. Their language skills vary from fluent to very basic. But at a time when scholars are pondering the fate of the Irish language, could these American students play any role in its revival?

Losing strategy

Despite much effort to revitalize Irish, some activists are frustrated.

"Irish is surviving as opposed to thriving." says Mait O Bradaigh, a principal of an Irish language immersion school in Ireland's Galway County. As early as 1366, there have been records of Irish language under attack, and there has been a formal group in place devoted to preserving the language since 1893. But despite more than 100 years of effort, the campaign to save Irish has met with limited success, while other Celtic languages have made more progress.

Start Quote

100 years ago, there would have been the vision or the hope or idea of rejuvenation of Irish to the point that it was the main language in Ireland. I don't think that's realistic”

End Quote Ronan Connolly Irish teacher

Wales, for instance, organised its big campaign for language revival in the 1970s, and boasts a higher usage rate.

"Welsh speakers have got a good relationship with the language. Of people who cast themselves as fluent, 85% use Welsh every day. Compare that to Irish, where 20% use it every day," says Meirion Prys Jones, executive director of Bwrdd Yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Board).

Irish language has rarely lacked support or enthusiasm from both the government or the Irish population in general. But while most residents polled want to see Irish thriving, many fewer actually speak it.

About 80,000 Irish say they use Irish daily, but some scholars estimate that the number of true Irish speakers is much less.

At the Washington DC bar, Irish native Richie Morrin joined up with the revellers, but didn't speak any Irish. Despite studying Irish in school, he's lost his language skills. "After school you stop using it, and then you get rusty," he says. Though some of his friends took advantage of the Irish clubs and social gatherings offered for young adults, he never did.

That's starting to change. For the past 10 years or so, interest in Irish has been in an upswing, with a renewed emphasis on Irish media and Irish education.

"A lot of people are going to the educational system to learn Irish - not just learning it as a subject, but learning how to communicate and learn in Irish," says Brenda Ní Ghairbhí, acting manager for Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language week). She also notes strong growth in extra-curricular Irish language societies.

But for language activists, the language is still under threat, with too few people speaking Irish regularly, and too much English being spoken in the Gaeltacht areas or regions, the concentrated communities where Irish is the primary language.

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Mr Ó Brádaigh says that in 2007, it was predicted that the Gaeltacht communities would last for just 20 more years.

"There is a huge amount of fresh interest in speaking the language," says David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University, North Wales.

"That's great, but it's really late. There is a question mark as to whether it's too little, too late."

Digital direction

There is much to be done within Ireland to help maintain the language. But its growth globally, though slight, is an encouraging sign for some linguists and language activists.

The rise in American Irish-speakers has been rapid but small: according to the Washington Post, 409 American students enrolled in Irish-language classes in 2008, compared to 278 in 1998. But the rise in interest abroad signifies a new life for the old tongue.

"My view on it is that in such a multicultural world as we have now, what you're really striving for is to give Irish hefty status and help it stand on its own two feet," says Mr Connolly.

Irish v Gaelic

Though Irish has its roots as a Gaelic language, it's called "Irish" by those who speak it.

"I never heard the term Gaelic to describe the language until I left Ireland," says Ronan Connolly.

As a descriptor, "Gaelic" means "pertaining to the Gaels" which also includes the native languages of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

But Mr Connolly says that while all those languages share the same roots, Irish has evolved into its own distinct entity, similar to the way the Dutch is a Germanic language but is not German.

"In the past, maybe 100 years ago, there would have been the vision or the hope or idea of rejuvenation of Irish to the point that it was the main language in Ireland. I don't think that's realistic."

What is realistic, he says, is to develop Irish so that it can co-exist with English in Ireland, and so that it's accessible to those who didn't grow up learning or speaking it.

That's where Irish language interest from American and other non-Irish students may help play a role. Their affinity for the language, coupled with their distance from Ireland, has helped create virtual Gaeltachts.

"When I go on Facebook, people are writing in Irish," says James Cooney, 30, one of the students in Mr Connolly's class. A native DC resident, he keeps up on his Irish through online correspondence, local meet-ups, and language-immersion vacations to places like the North American Gaeltacht outside of Ottawa, Canada.

The increased use of Irish online and around the world could help amplify the power of the language in a time when the concentrated geographical areas are on the decline.

"The biggest thing that an endangered community can do to ensure that its language survives is to have a very strong presence on the Internet. All over the world these virtual speech communities are becoming a reality," says Prof Crystal, author of the book Language Death.

These virtual communities also help those with Irish ancestry connect with their roots, providing a new audience for the language.

"Language learning is easier now, in terms of resources. Finding niches on the internet is so much easier, and that's a wonderful thing," says Mr Connolly. "In this day and age of everyone being so connected, people want to remind themselves of what makes them different. For some people, that something might be Irish heritage."

Still, Mr Ó Brádaigh warns that while interest in learning Irish is on the rise, the Irish-speaking communities that shape and protect the language are on the brink.

The ratio of Irish learners to Irish speakers is greater than any other language in the world, he says. "There's a worldwide network of Irish speakers, but the native speaker areas are under severe distress.

"In some ways, we spend too much time on learning, and not enough time addressing the Irish speakers we already have."

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