The best way to make the Irish language relevant to people’s lives is to encourage them to use it outside of the classroom and online technologies could help do that.
Irish is one of the world’s oldest languages but new methods can be used to help teach it and to enable it to be used outside of formal learning environments.
The 2011 Census results revealed that, while the number of people in Ireland who speak Irish increased by 7.1pc since 2006, 68.7pc said they could not speak or never speak it.
Breaking down the 31.3pc who do speak Irish, 12.2pc said they use it daily though only within the education system, and 14.3pc use Irish less frequently than once a week.
If the Irish language wishes to grow further, not only do we need better teaching methods, but we need to encourage people to use the language outside of formal learning settings. Technologies such as the internet, social networking and smartphones could help this process.
“The internet and social networking has offered all sorts of opportunities to anybody who wishes to communicate through the medium of Irish and to use Irish on a daily basis,” says Breandán Mac Craith, public relations officer in Foras na Gaeilge.
The work of Foras na Gaeilge
Foras na Gaeilge is responsible for promoting the Irish language throughout the island of Ireland and has used technology to help further these goals. It has worked on numerous initiatives, including one with Vodafone and Nuance to localise predictive text service T9 for the Irish language and has also worked with Sony to localise PlayStation games.
“One of the big difficulties of the Irish language in Ireland is that, while we do have blocks of people in the Gaeltacht who speak Irish, Irish speakers are spread out throughout the island, particularly when you get to the urban centres like Dublin and Galway,” explains Mac Craith.
“The use of social networking gives us a really great opportunity to bring those communities together online.”
One project which decided to use social networking to promote Irish is ‘Abair Leat!’, which was created by Coláiste Lurgan. The project originated from Coláiste Lurgan’s exploration of IT to teach Irish, which included CDs, interactive games and online books and modules.
“We’ve initially developed Abair Leat! as an online language lab where students’ specific conversations would be stored for playback for assessment by teachers. It was a class management platform,” says Mícheál Ó Foighil, manager of Coláiste Lurgan.
“But we wanted to extend it a bit more to help people make the transition from being a learner to using the language.”
The beginning of ‘Abair Leat!’
Coláiste Lurgan saw what was taking place online, particularly how social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter took off.
“We thought it would be great to be able to have some kind of platform online where people could more or less just exchange information and views outside of a classroom situation ‘as Gaeilge’,” he continues.
It approached US design agency Fantasy Interactive about the project. Its CEO David Hugh Martin has Irish origins and the idea interested him. It based Abair Leat! on its Kontain platform and the site launched in February.
Abair Leat! integrates translation and spelling to allow people of all competencies of Irish to use the site. Users must make posts and comments which use at least 70pc Irish, with the remaining 30pc to facilitate non-standard spelling and non-Irish words.
Ó Foighil hopes Abair Leat! will normalise the use of Irish in everyday life outside of the classroom environment.
“It’s quite a challenging undertaking and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do because most of what happens in the education system really doesn’t lead to conversational use of Gaeilge in social or informal settings," he says.
He points out that the site is being worked on a voluntary basis and says it was extremely beneficial for language learners, noting that they have the tools they need to create posts in Irish.
Coláiste Lurgan also plans to release a mobile app for it soon.
"There are about 6,000 people who have logged on since we launched over a month ago. The vast majority of those wouldn’t have been learners as such," he says.
"In the last few weeks, we began signing up those attending our own courses during the summer. It’s for this reason that we got involved in Abair Leat! in the first place because we see it as a huge supplementary activity for those who are learning the language looking for opportunities to use it."
Use of Irish outside classroom
IRISH TODAY – HOW MANY PEOPLE IN IRELAND SPEAK IRISH?
68.7pc: Can’t speak or never speak Irish
1 in 3: Number of those aged 10-19 who can’t speak Irish
14.3pc: Speak Irish less often than once a week
12.2pc: Speak Irish daily, but only within the education system
Source: Census 2011
Mac Craith agrees that Abair Leat! holds a lot of potential, noting it provides a dedicated environment for Irish language learning.
"There is an issue where I can use Facebook in Irish but I’m not going to do all of my posts in Irish because it’ll put off most of my friends," he says.
"I think that Abair Leat! will get around that and will be a really useful tool for people who are learning, in particular, because it helps out with increasing the use of Irish on a regular basis."
Within the classroom, Mac Craith believes technology can be used to make Irish language learning more engaging and innovative.
"With my own children, they know how to engage with computers. It’s becoming a must to make sure that when we’re trying to teach them, that we’re using the latest technologies to ensure that it continues to be relevant and interesting to them and fun, particularly at an early age. It’s extremely important that resources are available for schools."
Mac Craith highlights Vifax, an initiative from NUI Maynooth which takes news from Irish language channel TG4, makes the clips available online and posts lesson plans alongside them. The teacher can then show these clips to students and ask them questions about these news items.
“It’s a clever use of stuff that’s already there – the news has been done for traditional broadcast, but we now have it online so we can use it again as a resource to use for a teacher,” he says.
He also points out how useful the likes of Skype and instant messaging are for language learning, offering learners the chance to get a one-to-one interaction using the Irish language.
Ultimately, Mac Craith believes that the latest, most relevant technology should be used to offer the most engaging Irish language experience.
“Children, in particular, won’t use something that’s outdated – they won’t care if it’s in Irish, they just want to use it,” he stresses.
“So if we can provide them with the latest, most up-to-date games or resources then they’ll use them.
“It’s not about whether they’re in Irish or in English to them, it’s whether or not they’re useful. And that’s why it’s important for us to almost stay ahead of the curve.”