International Perspective


Bilingualism in Ireland and Language Promotion



©Jacques Leclerc 2018











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The Republic of Ireland (Poblacht na hÉireann) covers the southern part of the Island of Ireland, which lies to the west of Great Britain across the Sea of Ireland. The north of Ireland, of course, has been politically separate from the south since 1921. Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, whereas the Republic of Ireland to the south has been an independent state since 1937.

Ireland is not a federation (unlike Canada), but rather a unitary nation divided into 26 counties that have very limited powers of self-government. Still, it is officially bilingual, with English and Irish recognized as its official languages.

Languages in Ireland

About 83,6% of Ireland's citizens speak English as a mother tongue, while 3.5% of the population speaks Irish as a first language (60,000 to 70,000 speakers). According to a 1991 census, 32% of the population can speak Irish in one way or another, but it's difficult to gauge the population's actual ability to speak the language. More recent studies show that 3.5% of the citizens can speak Irish with any fluency or regularity, but two thirds of these individuals either never use Irish or do so less than once a week. Indeed, only 70,000 people (3% of the adult population) claim to speak Irish daily. Almost a third of all citizens say they use Irish as a second language and support all efforts to promote this national language. In other words, Irish has gone from being a mother tongue for 2 to 3% of the population to being a second language for more than 40% of the population. Of course, Canada's language reality stands in stark contrast: the minority language is still a strong mother tongue (or first language), but Ireland's minority official language is essentially a second language for the vast majority of citizens.

The west-coast regions of Ireland recognized as Irish-speaking- they are called the Gaeltacht (pronounced [guel-taukt])- account for only 23% of the country's population, but for 45% of the households that speak Irish. In other words, the use of Irish in these regions far surpasses the national average. Also, it appears these levels of usage have remained stable over the past few decades.

Irish, also called Irish Gaelic, is an Indo-European language that belongs to the same Celtic branch as Scottish, Gaelic, Manx Gaelic and, in France, Breton et Gallic (extinct).

Official State Bilingualism

In Ireland, bilingualism carries a highly symbolic value. In fact, the Irish constitution recognizes two official languages: Irish, given its status as the citizens' national language, is the "first official language." English, then, is the "second official language." This scenario could not apply to Canada's official languages, given their officially equal status. Ireland has no doubt recognized Irish as its "first official language" to underscore its significance as a symbol of Irish identity. In short, the "first" language is highly minority and little used; the "second" language is ubiquitous.

Ireland's entire language policy is designed to formally and legally reinstate Irish-the national language-in areas from which it has been ousted for more than 300 years. In Canada, French-though some times not given its rightful place-was never really excluded; what's more, French-speaking Canadians make up a much larger proportion of the country's population than Irish-speakers in Ireland. The government of Ireland, on the other hand, had to consider that only a negligible portion of the country's inhabitants had Irish as a mother tongue, and that almost all of its citizens spoke English only. Still, it could not overlook that Irish was, under the constitution, the country's "first official language," the vehicle by which Irish kept its significance as a symbol of Irish identity.

In a nutshell, the status of Irish and English in Ireland contrasts that of English and French in Canada: specifically, in Canada, the two official languages have equal legal status. Not so in Ireland, where Irish has greater legal status than English, though reality has always given English the upper hand.

In Ireland, official bilingualism's primary stage is the national parliament (called Oireachtas). The Constitution of 1948 and the Official Languages Act of 2003 state that both languages are to be used in both houses of the Oireachtas. As in Canada, parliamentary debates take place in both languages, and laws are written and adopted in both also. That said, Ireland's situation still differs in some ways from Canada's:

  1. Laws are first written in English, then translated into Irish, which isn't the case in Canada's Parliament.
  2. Unlike Canada, Ireland does not have simultaneous translation.
  3. So few people use Irish that simultaneous translation isn't needed-Irish is, in fact, merely a second language for all members of the Irish parliament.

Irish and English are officially accepted in all of Ireland's courts. Judges must give their ruling or sentence in English (to be properly understood) and in Irish (because of that language's status as the nation's "first language.") But in reality, proceedings virtually never take place in Irish. If a witness or a defendant asks to use Irish, the court has to comply with the request, even if it seriously delays the trial. This often occurs when a judge or when one of the lawyers involved does not speak fluent Irish. Courts never provide official interpreters. The only trials that take place in Irish usually involve a nationalist militant intent on using a few sentences in Irish as a display of national identity.

This differs from Canada's reality, where French is actually the first-not the second-language of Francophones. In Canadian federal courts, judges must understand all parties (accused, witnesses, complainants, lawyers) without the help of interpreters. In Ireland, the Official Languages Act establishes very specific provisions for the use of official languages during trials.

The Act also governs the use of official languages in public agencies and, in this context, resembles Canadian federal laws. In Ireland, as in Canada, citizens can ask for and receive government services in the official language of their choice-the difference being that the number of Irish people who actually ask for such services is so small that it usually involves people from the Gaeltacht. Still, all of Ireland's government structure is bilingual, and public servants have been required to pass a proficiency test in Irish since at least 1999. Since then, the government requires that at least one Irish-speaking person be working for all administrative services. Still, the insistence on bilingualism in government services is more symbolic than truly necessary; that's because one's citizen's insistence on the use of Irish in the management of his or her case can substantially delay the processing of his or her file-even if most of the official documentation is already bilingual. To meet legal requirements, names on federal buildings must, as in Canada, be bilingual-but usage in Ireland usually gives precedence to English terms, not Irish ones. Still, legislation isn't applied all that rigorously, because certain municipalities don a unilingual face, and that's because the actual application of the law is left to the municipalities (local authorities) themselves.

In education, bilingualism is compulsory. All elementary schools have to teach English and Irish from grade one right through to the end of the primary level. Ireland's ministry of education has adopted special measures (involving less English) in Celtic speaking districts of the Gaeltacht in which the mother tongue is Irish, the second language, English. At high school, Irish as a second language becomes optional and can be replaced by French, German or some other language. Though most children devote as many as 13 years to learning Irish, the educational system doesn't generally succeed in producing active, competent users of the language. How can they become proficient when there's essentially no one with whom to speak Irish?

As in Canada, Ireland's Official Languages Act calls for a commissioner of official languages (Oifig Choimisinéir na dTeangacha Oifigiúla), the person so appointed being called the "language commissioner" (An Coimisinéir Teanga). The duties involve ensuring that public agencies comply with the Act; taking the measures needed to ensure that public agencies abide by the Act; investigating infringements by public agencies; providing advice and other assistance to the members of the public regarding their rights; supporting public agencies in their efforts to meet their obligations under the law; and checking to see if a legal provision or legislative text on the status or use of an official language has been adhered to or not.


Admittedly, Ireland's language policies ressemble Canada's in many ways, at least on the legislative front. One might even ask if Canadian policy may have influenced Irish policy. Of course, however, the object of language intervention or engineering means everything: true, Irish isn't French; even truer, Irish is simply a second language for the vast majority of the Irish population, whereas French in Canada stands as a true mother tongue or first language. Only 2% of Ireland's citizens speak Irish as their mother tongue, but 22.7% of Canadians have French as theirs. All told, Canada has a big enough critical mass for its second official language, a language that, in addition, can claim international status. This isn't the case in Ireland.

In other words, similar policies haven't produced similar results. With only 2% of the population speaking it as a mother tongue, Irish has a very unstable base. Even if, thanks to Irish's status as a compulsory language in school, 40% of the citizens have a passive knowledge of it, the language remains more symbolic than actually useful in day-to-day life. In addition, the use of Irish is confined to largely rural regions in the country's southwest (the Gaeltacht) and mostly shunned in urban areas-all of this despite conscious and overt language policies enacted by the authorities (compulsory subject at school, bilingualism in all laws). This might explain, at least in part, the unfortunate failings of Ireland's efforts in linguistic engineering.

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