Contributed by Marnie Hay
I am an eternal student of Irish. I began studying the Irish language in Canada in 1992 at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia as part of an undergraduate Irish Studies programme. I also attended Irish immersion courses in Donegal. After three years I attained the equivalent of leaving certificate Irish. Despite living in Ireland for the past twelve years, however, it has been down hill from there.
When I arrived at Queen’s University in Belfast to pursue an MA in Irish Studies, I was disappointed to discover that I would not be permitted to study Irish as part of my formal degree programme. They would not even test me. (Apparently, the Irish language isn’t always considered an essential or even useful part of an Irish Studies programme on this island.) The only option was to take an extracurricular Irish conversation class that was offered at beginner’s level. The students who had some knowledge of Irish soon dropped out. Only those who were absolute beginners remained. I stuck with this for about a semester, but despite the teacher’s best efforts, boredom got the best of me, especially after we moved to a classroom without a television. (With no TV in my accommodation, I had enjoyed getting my weekly fix watching Irish language videos in class.) In hindsight, I should have joined An Cumann Gaelach at Queen’s instead.
Since then, I’ve taken various Irish conversation classes in Dublin, but it has been difficult to find a class at an appropriate level. The problem with learning Irish abroad is that you study lots of grammar, but you don’t get many real life opportunities to hear and speak the language. My Irish classmates tend to be good at vocabulary and pronunciation, but have less knowledge of the intricacies of Irish grammar. In the end, I gave up on Irish conversation classes due to frustration and, ultimately, lack of true commitment. The reality is that over the past twelve years, I’ve had more opportunity to use my French in conversation than my Irish.
Despite my desultory approach to language classes, I do have a great love and respect for the teanga náisiúnta. My knowledge of Irish, however imperfect, enriches my engagement with this country. Although there is plenty of room for improvement, my ability to read Irish is adequate for my work as a historian. Being able to pronounce words in Irish (usually with an Ulster accent, thanks to my first teacher who was from Derry) has proved useful when presenting lectures and papers. These days I enjoy watching cartoons dubbed into Irish on TG4 with my two-year-old son. I’m not sure what he is getting out of it, but my aural comprehension skills are certainly improving! Thus, I remain an eternal student of Irish (and French too).
The following is my advice to other language learners, eternal or otherwise. Firstly, set realistic goals and then tailor your studies accordingly. What do you really need the language for – academic research or holiday conversation? Historians might focus on the written word, but should not ignore pronunciation as you might need to say a name correctly in a presentation. Potential tourists might concentrate on learning to speak and understand the language required for vacation scenarios. Secondly, watch television. TG4 is a great resource with programmes catering to a range of interests. Thirdly, read whatever you can, whether it’s a children’s book or a newspaper article. And, finally, the classic piece of advice for learning any language: spend at least thirty minutes a day on it – even if it’s just watching Sponge Bob Square Pants as gaeilge.
Marnie Hay’s first book, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist movement in twentieth-century Ireland, is published by Manchester University Press and she is a research fellow in the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin.