With General Election 2011 drawing ever closer, one Party’s policy seems to be getting more attention than any other. If elected, Fine Gael proposes to make Irish a non-compulsory subject at Leaving Cert level. Although many people agree with the proposal and many valid arguments in favour of making the subject non-compulsory, 73% of people who responded to a poll on TheJournal.ie thought that Irish should remain compulsory.
Personally I am not in favour of one option over the other at this moment in time. I did my Junior and Leaving Cert through Irish and I went on to get my degree in Irish so you’d think I’d be all for keeping Irish as a required subject but I think the bigger issue right now is the curriculum.
Before any decision is made I think someone needs to sit down and take a long, hard look at the way Irish is taught in this country. If you study French, German or Spanish at secondary school you will learn practical written and conversation skills that should be able to help you get by if you ever visit a country where that language is spoken. In Irish classes it is assumed that you already know how to ask for directions or write a letter to someone in Irish so the curriculum is instead focused on out-dated Irish literature and poetry.
While I think Irish literature is an important key to our culture and heritage I think it is of no relevance to someone studying Irish at second or third level. How does reading ‘A Thig Na Thit Orm’ encourage students to use Irish in everyday life? Once my exams were over I never thought about the Irish books or poems I read again. They had no relevance to anything I was doing on a daily basis.
There is also an incentive to study a foreign language for the Leaving Cert as being able to speak French or German presents the students with opportunities to work and study in these countries. After leaving school there is little or no means to use Irish unless you end up working for one of the very few Irish language companies in Ireland. I’m fluent in Irish but I can’t remember the last time I spoke a word of it. I have no opportunity to use it. If Irish does become an optional subject an incentive to keep it on as a subject, such as bonus points or a grant, should be offered. To me, making Irish optional without doing anything to encourage students to study it is like putting someone on a bike for the first time without stabilisers and expecting them not to fall over.
One argument in favour of making Irish a non-compulsory subject which I’ve heard regularly is that a few students giving up the subject at Leaving Cert level won’t kill the language. I don’t believe there is any foresight in this statement or in Fine Gael’s policy. Many students will happily drop Irish in favour of subjects that are more related to the subject they want to study in college but what happens a few years down the line? Every day I meet people who say they wish they had paid more attention to Irish in school or who wish they could learn Irish now. The resources to learn Irish as an adult just aren’t there. Courses are short-term and expensive and once the course is over there is no outlet to continue using the language. As with studying Irish at Leaving Cert, there is no incentive for an adult to learn Irish later in life.
I personally believe that before making Irish a non-compulsory subject, Fine Gael should study what impact a similar decision has had on other minority languages. I also believe before they make any drastic decision they should modernise the way the language is taught and look at improving the resources for adults who wish to study the language.
Finally I have one question for anyone who thinks Irish shouldn’t be a compulsory subject; if Irish isn’t going to be compulsory anymore does that mean English and Maths will also be made non-compulsory?