Wednesday 30 June 2010

The Words We Use

For a long time now each generation which has reached middle age has lamented the decline in intellectual ability and civility of the one coming after. Yet civilisation hasn't collapsed. In many ways it is now a better time to grow up than at any time in the past. But the changes over the last half century aren't a mere linear evolution in manners - there seems to be a substantial rupture with the past.

The way in which post-60s generations have kicked off respect for authority has in many ways been liberating. But the reaction or rejection has gone too far and has been far to unselective. This, in my opinion, is one reason why teaching in school is now a barely tolerable task. And it may also explain the explosion in petty, mindless crime. It certainly explains the evaporation of civility from most public spaces.

It seems that we have been gripped by an agressive (and agressively hedonistic) cult of the individual. All of this was underway before the late, great, acceleration of technology into the realm of the personal (where the bywords of marketeers have been 'personalisation', 'customisation', 'unique user experience' - all short hand for individualsim). The twin phenomena of rejection of authority and tradition, and the rapid rise of email, text and other casual forms of communication have cut away the formality - and the discipline - that was once associated with the written word.

Indeed, to mention just one consequence, isn't the demise of letter writing one of the more lamentable side effects of our great leap forward into the age of electronic communication. What a joy for ordinary citizens to have records from their ancestors. But more important, for posterity, what a jewel to have such things as say, the letters of Abraham Lincoln, or those of other eminent persons in the history of any nation.

I cannot claim any great knowledge of the link between proficiency with language and intellectual ability. I would hazard that informality and (what we call) debasement probably have no bearing whatever on the agility of a mind. Even the most slovenly language will be capable of conveying all that is required to run a laboratory - or a country. The great fear would be if the collapse of language were to make its way into literature. There are few greater pleasures than reading a paragraph of prose which shines in impossible beauty. When we reach a stage where literary language has been thus devalued, we should know that we have indeed reached the end of civilisation.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Watching England Lose

This little post came to mind in response to a piece by Roddy Doyle in the New Yorker. Doyle wrote that he was going to bet for England but when he went to the bookies he couldn't bring himself to back the old enemy..

Doyle's remarks ring true: here in Dublin I could hear my neighbours cheer each time Germany scored. Typically punters in Irish pubs shake the rafters when someone, anyone, scores against England. These are usually the same people, like Mr. Doyle, who support English soccer clubs! Nothing illustrates our relationship with England better than the soccer paradox.

We built our argument for independence on the twin beliefs that a) we are not English, and b) they, the English, were responsible for all the wrongs of our history and our current state of misery. For this much blood was spilled (and great national myths were necessary to justify each separate horror). None of this, of course, makes us Irish unique. We made our myths, our wars, and our nation. Our trouble with the English, however, is that while we broke the political ties, we failed to break the cultural ones.

We failed to rehabilitate our national language and we remained under their cultural and (for most of the 20th century) economic shadow. Language is important. Nothing facilitates the cultural dominance of a great power over a small one more than a shared language. In terms of forging an independent culture (though I stress, not in any other way), it was to our misfortune that the power which stepped into the role of global empire after Britain was also English speaking. This cemented the position of the English language in Ireland (as elsewhere) thereby preserving a direct channel for English cultural produce into Ireland. All of this was happening at a time when communication, television, and later the internet was connecting Irish homes into the English cultural scene.

During our (ill-fated) economic boom of the 90s and naughties, Irish town and city cetres grew more and more like those in England. This is more to do with capital flow than culture, but it merely set in concrete what was happneing in parallel in cultural terms. In Ireland we consume vast quantities of British celeb culture; far from being force-fed British media, the fact is, English titles sell here because we Irish are prepared to pay to read about Victoria Beckham or Elton John.

We even follow the British Royalty, another topic which bubbles the paradox to the surface. Despite following the tribulations and foibles of prince Harry with great interest, there is something of a minor backlash on Irish airwaves at the announcement that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is going to visit Ireland next year - the first visit by a British Monarch since Irish Independence.

In Ireland we are happy to adore and support anything English as long as it has no national symbolism attached. This is surely a sign that despite our political independence, our success at building a functioning nation, and our increasing confidence as a member of the European Union, an ache of self doubt lingers in the heart of our project to creating a unique national identity, one that need not be defined by what it is not: English.

Monday 14 June 2010

FG wrong on Leaving Cert Irish

The position of Irish in the school curriculum is central to the larger question of whether the state - and by extension this nation - ought to preserve or promote the first official tongue. The cause of the language is very dear to my own heart, and therefore I feel very strongly that this is an important issue.

Everyone knows that Irish language policy has been very flawed down the years - though some remarkable changes have taken place over the last 15 years or so. We know too that there have been chronic failures in how the language has been taught. I recall studying 16th century poetry in a class where no student had the ability to order a train ticket in Irish. Some of these failures have been corrected in part in recent years; for example, by making the curriculum more relevant and emphasizing communication over literature.

Given the known and perceived failures it is tempting to reject current policy in its entirety. This would be a mistake. If the Irish language - still declining in the Gaeltacht - has any hope of survival as a spoken tongue, it is by virtue of the latent but widespread support that it enjoys among the general population.

It is true that among those who look favourably upon the language, most never succeed in mustering the effort required to learn to speak it. The reasons for that are complex, but the fact remains that passive support among the public is a crucial buttress without which the whole edifice of recent language policy would collapse.

Compulsory Irish, I believe, has been a key factor in maintaining a thin but very widespread knowledge of the language among the general population. It makes the vast bulk of the population at least moderately familiar with the language. People may not have enjoyed their experience with Irish in the classroom (one hopes that this can be continuously improved upon for future generations), but, more often than not, they come away wishing the system had served them better and that they had learned more not less of the native tongue.

When people who struggle with the language are given the option, they will opt out, and the result will be an evaporation of the crucial familiarity with Irish. The result will be alienation from the language. It is easy to see how, over a period of time, this would lead to a drastic drop in support for government sponsored revival efforts.

That people retain a mere 'cúpla focal' after years of schooling is an indictment that the system has failed to create competent speakers. Yet dispensing with this thin base entirely would be devastating.

The Fine Gael attempt to make Irish optional is a political ploy - designed to portray a party ready to take radical steps to inject impetus into fresh policies. In reality their proposal is a populist proposal, designed to capitalise on the widespread negative view, not of the language itself, but of how it was taught in school.

I would urge those who support the goal of preserving Irish not to fall for this ploy.

It is worth noting the Welsh have increased their compulsory requirement. From the early 90s it was compulsory to study Welsh to age 14 and in 1999 that was increased to 16. Welsh preservation and even revival efforts have been seen as more successful than ours. We should certainly keep an eye on developments there, though I would accept that each situation is different.

One thing is to be welcomed. Over recent years the debate on the Irish language has been increasingly informed by expert opinion in the field of socio-linguistics. Indeed this has brought a dose of reality to the question of Irish survival prospects that was previously absent. It has also highlighted with greater accuracy than before, that the language is indeed in a very perilous position. The state of the language is now so fragile - despite popular views to the contrary - that a major step in the wrong direction could wipe it out quickly and everywhere as a community tongue.

So the status of Irish in school should not be an object of experiment or political gaming. Instead it should be seen as an essential component of a survival strategy for a language which now needs very careful nurturing if it is to survive.