Report by Heike O’Sullivan
There are so many reasons why we should learn a foreign language. On a purely personal level, it can make international travel easier and more interesting. Work-related, fluency in at least one foreign language (and I don’t mean English, all you Gaeilgeoirs out there!) improves job opportunities in a myriad of business sectors, be it in Ireland or abroad.
In 2016, a Eurostat survey showed that 65% of working-age European adults considered themselves fluent in at least one foreign language. Not surprisingly, all Scandinavian countries were right at the top. Disappointingly, Ireland and the UK were among the bottom five. Yes, alright, English is the global language of technology and commerce. The arts, including movies or music, and popular culture are also widely dominated by the English language. Every time I’m visiting my native Germany I’m surprised at the casual use of English in everyday life. The desire to sound cosmopolitan has lead to a certain level of abandonment of their own language in favour of English (‘sale’, ‘coffee to go’) and some ridiculous word creations. ‘Handy’, anyone? It’s the “German” word for mobile phone. I keep saying that ‘handy’ is not a noun but they just don’t care and then, when they travel to Ireland or the UK, Germans are surprised that no one knows what they’re talking about. Anyway, English seems to be the go-to language worldwide. Is that reason enough though to be lazy when it comes to learning modern foreign languages?
From my first English lesson in secondary school at the age of ten, I was hooked. Here was a cool sounding language with grammar so much simpler than German. No need to apply gender to nouns, even inanimate objects. I mean, who came up with the idea that a hammer is masculine, a chainsaw feminine and a car neither? In English, everyone and everything is simply ‘the’. Not for English speakers, tormenting themselves in the correct application of one of the four cases for nouns, pronouns and adjectives. In the German language, most of the parts of speech change according to their function in the sentence. Mixing up your cases can result in instead of you throwing hay over a fence to a horse, you might break your back pegging the horse into the hay instead. Thanks to the specific Subject-Verb-Object order of the English language, such calamities don’t occur. So, you can imagine, most of us German students took to English like ducks to water.
As a young adult I started travelling to Ireland and quickly fell in love with the sound of the Irish language. No, even after 24 years in Kerry I still can’t speak Irish, but like so many of you, dear Readers, I enjoy using the odd word here and there. I would love to understand more but, a bit like you Irish, I’m just too lazy. Even simple things like reading road signs and knowing the meaning behind Irish place names fascinates me. They often convey a really good idea of the character or history of a place, and I’d often love to know more about a location. Did Greenane, for instance, get its name from its sunny south-facing orientation? Or the funny sounding Carks – does is have anything to do with a hen and if so, what did she do to be immortalised by having a whole townland called after her? Answers on a postcard, please.
I also think it’s lovely that so many words rooted in the Irish language have found their way into everyday Hiberno-English. Words that roll off the tongue such as ‘sleveen’ and ‘geansaí’, and words like the dreaded ‘sceartán’. My current favourite word, learned during ‘the Beast from the East’, is ‘sneachta’. I love its sound, if not its meaning. As important as English is in this commercialised world of ours, let’s not forget that this proud country has its own language with oodles of charm.
The 26th September next is European Day of Languages. It does not only aim to alert the public to the importance of language learning, but it also wants to promote the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe. This combination of wanting to preserve and foster languages such as your very own, glorious Irish, and emphasising the value of learning other foreign languages deserves to be highlighted. Globalisation and patterns of business mean that we increasingly need foreign language skills to work effectively within our own countries. English alone is no longer enough. On the other hand, there have never been more opportunities to work or study in a different European country – but lack of language competence prevents many people from taking advantage of them.
So go on, look into learning a foreign language at school, at college or at our fabulous Adult Education Centre. Celebrate the Day of European Languages on https://edl.ecml.at !