Irish Language

Lá sona st Pádraig, that is to say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”. As the dust settles in Irish neighborhoods around the world, I woke up in the mood for a screed about Irish-Americans who bedeck themselves with shamrocks and drink themselves green on St. Patty’s Day and indulge in a sort of maudlin jingoism, but who, if asked if they speak any Irish, can’t come up with more than Éirinn go Brách.

Instead, I’m happy to pass along a link to one of the most entertaining and fascinating documentaries about language ever: No Béarla (No English) by filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan. In this entertaining multipart series aired in ’07 and ’08 (free now on Youtube), Magan chronicles his misadventures touring Ireland speaking nothing but Irish.

This should be easy, right? Irish is the “first national language” of the country. Most students in Ireland spend more than a decade studying the language. And yet mostly what Magan encounters is embarrassed bafflement. He stands in a popular Dublin Square and pleads with, harangues, and cajoles passers-by in Irish. He waves a €5 bill to anyone who can chat with him in Irish. Nobody understands him. The Irish, he laments, won the fight for the freedom to choose between the Irish language and English “and then chose English.”

I often free-associate from Ireland to Israel. Born less than 30 years apart, both nations had a historical relationship to a language not spoken by a majority of its citizens. Both states recognized those languages as national tongues and promoted their use. The result in Israel was the spectacular resuscitation of a language that had been out use as a medium of daily life for nearly two millennia. Irish continued its decline.

The different outcomes have less to do with a lack of zeal in Ireland than with the factor that most often drives language learning: utility. Reviving Hebrew was inspired and inspiring. As Jews immigrated to Palestine before the foundation of Israel, however, they spoke many languages: Arabic, Polish, Yiddish, Romanian, German, and French to name a few. Modern Hebrew filled an urgent need for a shared lingua franca. At the time of the Irish Revolution, on the other hand, English might have had an odious association with an oppressor, but residents of Ireland had no problem talking to each other.

A brilliant editor juxtaposing comedy and tragedy, stirring solemnity and banal visits to convenient stores, Magan is part provocateur, part comedian, and part jeremiah. Check it out! To learn something about Irish, where else would one go in North America but the home of the Fighting Irish: the Notre Dame Irish language program.

The winner of Friday’s copy of Elements of Japanese Design was Katharine in Detroit. Thanks for reading, Katharine!


National Foreign Language Week

Thanks to everyone who wrote in for a copy of Writing Systems of the World! The book is going to Phill in SE Tennessee. Sometimes you can find it in bookstores, but it’s always available from online retailers and our website. On our website, you can use the discount code OMNIVORE to take 35% off your order.

I see that this week is National Foreign Language Week, which is sponsored by Alpha Mu Gamma, a college-level foreign language honor society. Although I usually draft a blog entry a few days in advance, I didn’t sketch out any ideas this time, expecting that something about NFLW would sort of write itself.

Well, it didn’t. There just wasn’t really much news to pass on. It’s not that people in the US have no interest in languages other than English, but there’s no national language policy around which the timing or activities for a “foreign language week” might be coordinated. The February edition of The Language Educator, a publication of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) reviewed how foreign-language policy and education are approached in other English-speaking countries (Canada, Australia, the UK, and Ireland), however, and so I was curious to see if other countries have some best-practices the US might adopt.

The English implemented a language policy (“Languages for All; Languages for Life”) in 2002, but defunded it in 2011. Australia got started with a national language curriculum, but it’s never been finished. This survey didn’t include New Zealand, but I got lucky and an article on the subject just appeared in today’s New Zealand Herald. It bemoans how New Zealand lags behind Australia and the UK, so, yikes. The article describes New Zealand as a “publicly monolingual country” within “a bicultural legislative framework”, which is an accurate way to acknowledge New Zealand’s efforts to promote, preserve, and recognize Maori even while most public business (and even many conversations between Maoris) take place in English.

The phrase could also be applied to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Article 8 of the Irish constitution of 1937 names “the Irish Language” as the “first official language of Ireland”. Efforts in the Emerald Isle to revive Irish have helped a bit, but so far Erse is just hanging on. There’s no great revival in sight.

The one success story is Canada. From our point of view here in Vermont, we experience Canada’s most Francophone and bilingual region (je me souviens!), but many parts of Canada have a true bilingual vibe.

So since we don’t have any parades lined up for National Foreign Language Week, we might meditate on improvement. The observation I make over and over is that almost all parents want their kids to be bilingual—but don’t aspire to be bilingual themselves. Where bilingualism takes hold, it’s because parents lead the way.

Thinking in the Present Tense. Just do it.

The winner of a copy of Elementary Tagalog was Christine in Missassauga! (The book’s in the mail, Christine.) For everyone else, please always feel free to use the “friends & family” discount code OMNIVORE at our website. The code takes 35% off the price of everything in your shopping cart.


Keith Chen’s TED talk how your future is shaped by how you talk about it

Does your first language have a future tense? If so, bad news to report. You’re likely to save less, smoke more, and become overweight. The details are in a TED talk by behavioral economist Keith Chen that my friend Janet emailed me.

Chen’s hypothesis is that people whose languages don’t separate the future from the present tend to plan ahead better because they perceive future time vividly as a continuation of the present, not as a separate, distant thing. The idea is that if I can tell myself: “I will quit smoking tomorrow”, I’m able to assign quitting to the cozy abstraction of a mañana that’s always just over the next horizon.

Chen believes that if, as in Japanese, for example, your only grammatical choice is “Tomorrow I quit”, you’re more likely to perceive tomorrow as connected to today and, therefore, just get on with it. Or, in the words of the great American philosopher Janis Joplin: “It’s all the same f****** day, man”.

Where does English score? We’ve got a future tense, of course, but we also often speak about the future (“I will quit”) using a present progressive form (“I’m going to quit”) and, to be particularly evocative, we can say “tomorrow I quit”. That puts us in the middle. Interestingly, Chen separates UK and US English, putting the UK more towards the future-using end of the scale and the US towards the present-using scale. Some of the languages at the end of the futureless scale are Chinese, Japanese, German, and Dutch.

So Chen’s Nike-esque advice to people who want to make a change in life? Don’t say “I will do it.” Just say “I do it.”