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Siobhán Parkinson

Irish-German Studies 6: Contemporary German-Irish Relations in a European Perspective, Joachim Fischer and Rolf Stehle (eds), Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 288 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-3868213867

I met an African child in inner city Dublin a few years ago. She was nine years old and had migrated to Ireland with her family from one of the francophone countries when she was seven. Her mother tongue was a tribal language whose name I am embarrassed to say I cannot remember; as a small child she quickly acquired French, literally the lingua franca of her home country; in the two years she’d been in Ireland, she had learned both English and Irish and was top of her class in both. The best part was that she failed utterly to be astonished at her own accomplishment, shrugging it off as if I were congratulating her on having learned to walk. Multiple language acquisition she saw as an unremarkable norm.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is typical. Many immigrant children have language difficulties and they require specialist interventions that they often do not get in our under-resourced education system. I’m sure “my” nine-year-old was a bright child, and that the ease with which she acquired languages had to do with a complex of cognitive, economic and cultural factors that might not obtain in typical immigrant families’ experience; but I doubt, all the same, if she was a freakishly gifted linguist. Most children are naturally bright when it comes to learning languages. Their brains are simply wired that way. Still, if there was another nine-year-old in the Pearse Street area that day who spoke four languages fluently, I would have bet a lot of money it was another child of Africa – or at any rate not a member of the indigenous Irish population.

The pressure to learn the language of trade and international communication is irresistible to peoples whose mother tongues are not widely spoken. Northern Europeans whose native languages are small in world terms have long since met the challenge, have introduced English from an early age in school, and can generally speak it to a high level of proficiency. This is doubtless due partly to sound Scandinavian planning and good sense, but it is hardly a singularly northern European phenomenon. At a stretch, what we might call the Scandinavian phenomenon bears comparison with my nine-year-old African girl, whose mother tongue is so small and local that not learning another language for use outside the home is simply unthinkable. In both cases, openness to other languages is rooted in pragmatism, though doubtless it brings more than practical benefits.

So what happens to our children? What is it that prevents us as a nation from learning other languages to a proficient level? There are people who’ll tell you that compulsory Irish is at the root of the problem, but it is far more likely that being primarily an English-speaking nation is the main locus not only of our monolingualism but also of our linguistic complacency.

The teaching and learning of German in Ireland is by no means the only focus of Irish-German Studies 6, but that topic does surface again and again in this diverse and unfailingly interesting volume, published to celebrate fifty years of the work of the Goethe-Institut (the German cultural institute) in Ireland. If there is a single message to be derived from these essays it would have to be that German, along with other modern languages, is under extreme pressure in our schools and universities. The essays that have most to say about the daily challenges met in classrooms and lecture theatres around the country are the least accessible to the average Irish reader, since they are written – mostly by non-Germans – in German. Collected at the back of the volume, they are by lecturers in Germanistik (German studies) from around the country.

This set of essays might easily have been a catalogue of despair: declining numbers; low standards; students’ ignorance of the basics of grammar and syntax even in their own language; students’ intolerance of what they perceive as outmoded literature and their inability to engage with texts of substantial length unmediated by technology, live performance or immediate encounters with authors; their lack of familiarity with even the basics of a cultural education such as may be derived from art galleries and theatres, the lack of any concept of cultural history. But what these essays overwhelmingly evince is not irritation or intolerance; rather, essay after essay outlines strategies for engaging with students at whatever level they are at and a remarkably cheerful willingness to adapt their syllabuses and provide innovative ways into encountering German culture, through film, music, drama and the visual arts as well as through literature.

Mentions of what goes on at second level, where the terminal examination seems to unduly influence both teaching and learning, are less encouraging, and the effects of rote learning and a lack of real engagement with the language and culture under study are a depressing indictment of the way the syllabus is taught (though not, presumably, in all cases). What happens at second level is obviously crucial not only for what goes on to play out at third level, but also for the general competence in other languages of the population at large; the signs are not encouraging.

One reason for the decline in uptake of foreign languages at second and third levels appears to be a perception among students and presumably also their parents that foreign languages are not “necessary”. “English is enough” is the ignorant refrain (quoted in IGS 6 by both Maeve Conrick and Arnd Witte).

It is certainly true that native English speakers enjoy an advantage in international communications, whether in the business, political or cultural spheres. It is simply less stressful to speak your own language all day than to operate in a second language, even if you are very good at it. But to agree that English speakers have a natural advantage is not the same as to argue that English is enough. You might get away with English only in international situations, yet even at a pragmatic level speaking languages other than English is advantageous.

Making a spirited case for the learning of other European languages in this volume, Arnd Witte puts forward an argument from economics that is well worth considering. The lack of proficiency in other languages is not only a deficit for the monolingual him/herself, he argues “ … but it also disadvantages the Irish economy because it is forced to rely on the language skills of foreigners ...”

Willy Brandt’s famous injunction that whereas he is prepared to speak English when he’s selling something to a foreigner, yet if a foreigner wants to sell to him, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen (quoted here by Witte) still holds good, at least to some extent. The Germans may have become rather more open to doing business in English since Brandt’s time, but the sentiment expressed by the chancellor still seems to hold for the Chinese. At least, I assume that the recent rush among Irish students to learn Mandarin and other oriental languages does not spring from suddenly acquired cultural interests.

Even if the pragmatic business arguments for learning other European languages have been to some extent diluted by the increasing dominance of English as the language of international negotiations, there are all kinds of cognitive, psychological, social and cultural benefits to learning languages other than English, both for the individual and for society. As Rolf Stehle, until recently director of the Goethe-Institut in Dublin, argues,

Language creates identity; learning languages fosters understanding. In this age of globalization, migration and European integration, language skills are more important than ever, since they allow direct access to other cultures. Learning other languages is key to opening up new possibilities and accelerating personal development.

These benefits are not always visible, alas, to government, business, parents and students – and unfortunately not always even to educationalists.

English, quite simply, is not enough – for a variety of reasons, but especially because, as Witte argues, “Monolingualism results in people leading insular lives – intellectually, professionally, and culturally”. That insularity is undoubtedly at work in Irish culture today. The very notion that “English is enough” (a slogan imported from the UK that we can well do without) is itself an indication of insular thinking. In his essay on the work of the institute over the past fifty years in Ireland, Joachim Fischer courageously identifies a kind of insularity that we Irish are either unaware of or don’t care to address:

… academic cultural critics and cultural historians in Ireland tend to come from a background in English Studies, with some input from Irish historians; not many are familiar with languages other than their own (world-)language. Their work is thus generally characterized by Anglocentricity and often by a post-colonial agenda, with the former colonial power to the east their principal focus.

Anglocentrism is scarcely an accusation that will sit well with the average educated Irish person: to see ourselves as others see us is not always a comfortable experience. But Fischer has undoubtedly put his finger on a serious lacuna in our (much-vaunted) cultural achievements, and in doing so he is providing a telling example of the insularity that Witte ascribes to a (largely) monolingual culture.

Fischer goes on to give the following searing (but certainly well-founded) critique of Celtic Tiger attitudes to culture:

The explosion of continental-style coffee houses, massive (sic) travel all over Europe and holiday homes in Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria were little more than a cosmopolitan veneer which masked an increasing orientation towards the US. … German culture, being traditionally both critical and political, was perceived as too serious and negative in the affirmative, “life-style”-obsessed atmosphere of the Celtic Tiger.

Chastening though Fischer’s comments may be, it is not helpful to view these things in moral terms. The fact that other people learn our language while we do not return the compliment does not of itself make us less worthy people, but it does immeasurably impoverish the monolingual English-speaker (and the largely monolingual nation), often to the point where we are unaware of our own cultural deficiencies. Fischer refrains from actually quoting Mary Harney’s egregious Berlin/Boston remark, but we do well to remember that the emphasis on an Anglo-American orientation in Irish culture is not simply a phenomenon in itself but it may derive (as it clearly did in Harney’s case) from a rejection of “the European social market economy with its welfare-state values”.

Not only are students falling for the erroneous idea that learning foreign languages is of no value; even the education system itself appears to be moving away from a commitment to the arts in general and languages in particular. Maeve Conrick points a suspicious finger at our current Minister for Education, suggesting that he may be on the verge of allowing the universities to drop the requirement for a language other than Irish and English, thus copper-fastening Ireland as a country in which foreign languages are officially considered, at best, an educational extra rather than a core requirement for the education of undergraduates in a civil society that likes to think of itself as committed to the European project.

At times of economic pressure, anything that looks like a luxury rather than a countable economic benefit tends to come under scrutiny, and the arts subjects find themselves in this situation in Ireland today. As Michael Cronin puts it,

Jobs not Joyce becomes the mantra of the cost-cutting nomenklatura. The threat in such a climate is that a highly instrumentalized view of science and technology becomes the only conceivable paradigm for investment in education, arts and culture.

There is no doubt that the economy needs graduates in the sciences and technology ‑ and no one disputes the value of high-level mathematical thinking, but to set this kind of educational choice up in opposition to the arts – which is what in effect is happening with the sky-rocketing of entry requirements for science and technology courses and the concomitant fall in the requirements for the arts – is bound to have detrimental effects on the culture. The arts as an area for study are held in low esteem (though there is, oddly, at the same time a national frenzy of lip-service to “the cultural industries”). This devaluing of an arts/languages education will have repercussions that don’t seem to have occurred either to government or even to the educational establishment. The nation needs graduates with a broad education, fluent in languages other than their own, conversant with their own and other cultures, able to think creatively and critically and reflect on politics, economics, sociology, the media, governance, history, culture and the arts and capable of what Cronin calls “empathetic imagination” as well as medics, technologists, mathematicians and scientists. And that is not just because we need teachers, librarians, musicians, journalists, designers, artists, social innovators, historians and philosophers into the future; it is because we need educated, thoughtful, broadminded citizens. To quote Cronin again, “How is it possible, for example, to have a Smart Economy without a Smart Society?”

In view of this, it is, as Maeve Conrick so mildly puts it, “curious” that “the Hunt Report, which sets out Ireland’s strategy for Higher Education to 2030, does not mention languages, other than the Irish language, at all” (my emphasis). It is hardly surprising, then, that Ireland’s lack of a policy on language in education “has been adverted to internationally, notably in a Council of Europe Language Education Policy Profile report on Ireland in 2008”.

And finally, let us address the elephant in the room. It seems very likely that our ambivalent attitudes to the Irish language, and especially to compulsory Irish at Leaving Certificate, partly explain our flawed thinking when it comes to foreign languages in education. Arnd Witte claims that “Ireland is the only European country where study of a foreign language is not compulsory at any stage of education”. This may be literally true, but it is not entirely fairly phrased. We may not have a compulsory foreign language but, in Irish, we do have a compulsory second language all the way through primary and secondary education for most pupils. When compulsory Irish is taken into account, it is hardly surprising that “only 8 per cent of Irish secondary-school students learn two or more foreign languages, compared with the European average of 60 per cent”. Irish students taking two foreign languages would in fact be studying three languages in addition to their mother tongue; most of the 60 per cent of European students referred to are studying only two additional languages. Whether one agrees with compulsory Irish or not, one does have to acknowledge the fact that students have to study it.

And there are advantages. Where Irish is well taught, or at least well learned, it has the same effect as learning any other language: being an indigenous language, it may not broaden a student’s horizons in quite the same way that study of another European language would, but then that depends where you draw the horizons in the first place. From a cognitive point of view, learning Irish is as valuable as learning any other language. It makes those Irish students who have learned Irish well at the very least sprachbewusst (language-aware), as Siobhán Donovan puts it. (Indeed, there is at least anecdotal evidence that students who speak Irish find German easier to pronounce than do other English speakers.)

There is no doubt that Irish as a compulsory subject for matriculation tends to make the choice of a second (or possibly even a first) foreign language less likely, but this effect has to be distinguished from the cognitive and cultural value of all language-learning. Setting languages up in competition with each other is unhelpful. Languages, after all, are a lot like life: the more you learn, the more you learn.

Regardless of the reasons – the dominance of English, our ambivalence towards Irish – our shaky commitment as a nation to language education is much more than curious: it is downright depressing when you think of the Europe we are living in, whose project Rolf Stehle describes as follows:

Today the important issues are development of common goals and visions and the question of what Europe can contribute to the development of a global set of values that is founded on partnership and dialogue and the desire to make the world a more humane place.

Stehle’s call for Europe to create a more humane world is highly relevant here. The connection between the words “humanities” and “humane” is not merely a quaint verbal quirk. The humanities and the liberal arts, including foreign languages, are those subjects in which we learn what it is to be human, and downgrading these areas of study does no service to the science subjects, while at the same time it deeply injures our quest as a nation for ourselves and our identity and seriously impairs our ability to work towards a more humane world, since it narrows our perceptions – in the most insidious way, which is to say in a way largely unknown to ourselves.

Siobhán Parkinson is a writer, translator and publisher of books for young people. Until recently she served as Ireland’s first children’s laureate. German-Irish Studies is available from the Goethe-Institut for a special price of €20 plus €3.50 postage. Contact [email protected]