It’s St. Patrick’s Day, the one day each year that people across the world “embrace Irish culture” by wearing green and consuming copious amounts of beer laced with green food coloring. More encouragingly, however, the Washington Post notes that increasing numbers of Americans are learning to appreciate their Irish heritage on a much deeper level: by learning the language.
Per the Washington Post, enrollment in Irish-language courses at universities has almost doubled over the past decade, to 409 students in 2009 from 278 in 1998. That may not sound like much, but you have to consider that only 152 students at the university level were learning Greek, and even fewer were learning languages like Danish. Also, that doesn’t the count the number of people who learn the language on their own or from somewhere other than a university.
The BBC notes that the interest in Irish abroad has corresponded with increased interest in the language back home in Ireland, though the linguistic experts it spoke to were only guardedly optimistic. For example, David Crystal of Bangor University said
“There is a huge amount of fresh interest in speaking the language. That’s great, but it’s really late. There is a question mark as to whether it’s too little, too late.”‘
Most of the students learning Irish in America are Irish-American, looking to reconnect with their Irish heritage. According to Crystal, their interest may help preserve the language, especially now that the internet provides so many opportunities for Irish speakers to congregate online:
“The biggest thing that an endangered community can do to ensure that its language survives is to have a very strong presence on the Internet. All over the world these virtual speech communities are becoming a reality.”
However, Irish language activists, like Mait O Bradaigh, who runs an Irish-language immersion school, say that while more Irish learners are definitely merrier, steps still need to be taken to address the Irish-speaking communities in Ireland:
“There’s a worldwide network of Irish speakers, but the native speaker areas are under severe distress. In some ways, we spend too much time on learning, and not enough time addressing the Irish speakers we already have.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!