Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free Download - A Learner's Guide to Irish

About two years ago your faithful narrator took a look at such books as exist for adults to learn Irish. One of the ones I recommended most warmly was A Learner’s Guide to Irish, by an American academic called Donna Wong.

During the week I got mail from friend of the blog Rob, who told me that although Doctor Wong’s book is now out of print, it is now available in its entirety to download free from Cois Life, the website of its publisher. Anybody with any interest in the language should take the time. The book is solid gold.

The failures in the promotion of Irish have been many down the years. There are countless children’s books about learning Irish, because publishers know that there is a captive – in every sense of the word – audience there. But for adults who wished to go back there was no way in, because children’s books are not suitable for adults and books written in Irish itself are no use to someone with no Irish at all.

Another of the failures in the way the language has been taught is the idea that exists now that there’s some way to sugar coat it. That people without a gift for languages will just pick it up without having to do their homework. And the problem with that is that when you don’t have a gift for language and you don’t just pick it up you then feel stupid, then frustrated, then disillusioned, and then you just abandon it altogether. I don't have a gift for languages, and this exactly how I felt about the language in school. I got through it in the end through a good memory and a certain level of pig-headedness, but the syllabus and the established practices did not cut me many breaks. Nor many others, from what I can see.

It’s much more honest to admit at the start that Irish is radically different in its structures than English, and this is an issue for learners when they’re starting out. Irish is an inflected language, which means that the forms of the words change according to what they do in a particular sentence.

Lots of languages do this, with Latin and German being the most common examples, but English and the Romance languages like French, Spanish or Italian do not inflect words any more, and that’s what makes Irish so frightening for someone who is a native speaker of English. Such as ninety plus per cent of the population of Ireland. And these constructions which you can’t relate back to English are then doubly frightening if you have a teacher blithely ignoring their existence, and then expecting someone to just somehow pick up all these subtle changes (fuinneog, an fhuinneog, fuinneoige, na fuinneoige, na fuinneoga, na bhfuinneog, for example) as he or she goes along.

Doctor Wong’s book lists the rules. How many people put down fourteen years at school without ever knowing if the Irish for Christmas is “Nollag” or “Nollaig”? And if only one of those words translates as Christmas, what in the name of God does the other one mean? Using Donna Wong’s book as a reference will tell you, and may be the first step to Irish people being able to learn your own language. Something for which the State should thank her.

But which the State almost certainly won’t, of course. It is interesting to note that Doctor Wong’s generously acknowledges her debt to Brian Mac Giolla Phádraig’s Réchúrsa Gramadaí, and pointedly notes that “if this book [Réchúrsa Gramadaí] had an English translation, A Learner’s Guide to Irish would be unnecessary.” Doctor Wong wrote her book outside the structures of the Irish language industry in this country. It’s the nation’s own fault that Irish remains on her deathbed eighty years after independence. Something to reflect on for St Patrick’s Day as we celebrate what a fine people we are.

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