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Soas-ucl / Mercator Research Conference: ‘Languages of the Wider World’: Understanding Resilience and Shift in Regional and Minority languages Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden

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Soas-ucl / Mercator Research Conference: ‘Languages of the Wider World’: Understanding Resilience and Shift in Regional and Minority languages Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden




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SOAS-UCL / Mercator Research Conference: ‘Languages of the Wider World’: Understanding Resilience and Shift in Regional and Minority languages

Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden, 7-8 April 2011

Improved Learning of Irish – can language-orientation instruction help?
Seán Ó Riain1
Research the propedeutic qualities of various languages to discover which second language is most likely to encourage subsequent language-learning. An innovative UK programme has been testing an alternative propedeutic approach since September 2006 (sections 4.2 and 6.4.1), and this may have implications for the order in which languages are learned.”
From Recommendations of EU Civil Society Platform on Multilingualism (29 pan-EU organisations), final report, 30 March 2011
The Harris reports of 1984 and 20062, on the teaching of Irish in primary schools, showed that 96% of students from the Irish-medium schools master both languages, yet in the English-medium schools, despite some 12 years studying Irish as an obligatory subject, up to 70% of students make little progress. This had led to some criticism of language learning as “elitist”: the educational system has had the unintended effect of excluding the majority from a positive experience of multilingualism.
This presentation seeks to make four main points:


  1. It is generally accepted that any second language which has been thoroughly learnt will be helpful in subsequent language-learning.

  2. Due to its unusually streamlined structure, a short course in Esperanto is particularly effective in preparing learners for subsequent language-learning.

  3. The aim is not to learn a large amount of Esperanto, but a ‘language orientation course’, lasting 50 – 100 hours, covering the basic grammar of Esperanto and the 500 most frequently-used morphemes, the equivalent of 2,000 words in other languages.

  4. A pilot scheme in an Irish primary school is recommended, to test whether and to what extent such a course could improve the learning of Irish, or the learning of French, German, etc. in a Gaelscoil (Irish-medium school).


Language-orientation instruction: The idea of a regular, easy-to-learn language, without exceptions, as a stepping-stone towards learning other languages is not new, but like the metric system, it needs time to find general acceptance. The actual language used for propaedeutic purposes is less important than the fact that its structure must contribute to rapid and easy learnability. Confidence gained by mastering attainable targets can help

students master more difficult languages. Some experiments, such at those carried out by the Cybernetic Faculty of Paderborn University, suggest that the time used by a propaedeutic course can be more than made up by the more rapid pace of subsequent learning. The pioneering “Springboard to Languages” programme3 has been testing these ideas in practice since September 2006 (see below). Could this work benefit the teaching of Irish? That is the question to be addressed in this paper.

Esperanto, the international language initiated in Warsaw in the late 19th century, is now 124 years old. Some 2-3 million people in over 120 countries have a knowledge of it, and it has produced a rich literature, both original4 and translated5. It has its own native speakers, and the Esperanto wikipedia has over 143,000 articles and is the 26th largest of the 281 wikipedia languages6. It has its own history: Die Gefährliche Sprache7 documents the efforts of Hitler and Stalin to eliminate Esperanto by murdering its speakers. A French linguist criticised Esperanto as “cette langue plus précise que la pensée8 (this language more precise than thought itself). Two examples:

She wrote a book with a friend/pen. - Ŝi skribis libron kun amiko/per skribilo.

She loves her husband/some other woman’s husband. - Ŝi amas sian edzon/ŝian edzon.

Propédeutique – lernfaciliga – “learning made easier”?
The word propédeutique comes from the Ancient Greek “pro” + “paideuein”, “before + teaching », thus meaning “help before teaching”.

The more transparent term in Esperanto, “lernfaciliga” means “that which makes learning easier”. It may apply “before learning” or “while learning”. Some personal experience: our two teenage daughters learned Esperanto not as a second language, but as a fifth. Both agree that it has deepened their understanding of grammar in general and thus helped their other languages.

In answer to the question “why Esperanto?”, Professor Wim Jansen, University of Amsterdam, mentions five factors peculiar to the language:9

1) its regularity;

2) its transparence;

3) its lack of exceptions to grammatical rules,

4) the culture of the Esperanto-speaking community subsumes contributions from many other cultures;

5) Esperanto does not impose any particular models of thought or societal organisation, as other foreign languages tend to do.

The Springboard” programme has been continuing in four UK schools with some 250 pupils, under the supervision of the University of Manchester, since September 2006. It has two aims:

1) to raise the languages awareness of the pupils;

2) to prepare pupils to learn subsequent languages.

Due to the streamlined structure of Esperanto, the 500 morphemes taught in the Springboard course are the equivalent of 2,000 words in other languages. Why? Because prefixes and suffixes are universally applicable. ‘Mal-‘ signifies the opposite meaning, for all akjectives, and for all verbs (e.g. malbela, malami, maltrinki). Zlatko Tišljar has estimated that no more than 50-100 hours are needed to master this course. Corsetti agus La Torre 200110 presents numerous references to similar experiments carried out in various countries since 1921. Dr Katalin Kovats (then Smidéliusz) wrote her Ph.D thesis on a study of Esperanto helping Hungarian children to learn Italian11. She does not claim a universal propaedeutical value for Esperanto, as her studies have led her to a nuanced view. She gives us a useful principle12:

The greater the difference between the mother tongue and the target language, and the closer Esperanto is to the target language, the greater the propaedutical effect. It is therefore more valuable to a Hungarian learning Italian than to a Pole learning Russian.”

And for an English speaker learning Irish? The first part of the above principle applies, but the second is not salient, as Esperanto is not close to Irish.13 Dr Eugene McKendry, Director of the Information Centre on Language Teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, considers that it does. He writes:14

I propose Irish and English for primary schools and, where possible, Esperanto as the third language, to ensure a good preparation for the learning of other languages.”

If a non-Esperanto-speaking specialist like Dr McKendry considers this approach worthwhile, it may be useful to take a closer look at precisely why the structure of Esperanto makes it a particularly good preparation for subsequent language study. Let us look at three levels:



  1. On the surface, at the level of vocabulary, Espeanto appears to be an inflected Indo-European language. It gleans most of its vocabulary from the Romance and Germanic languages, as does English. Many observers look no further than this, and thus miss the essential point.

  2. At the second, syntactical level, it is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Hungarian and Finnish, e.g. ‘mal-san-ul-ejo’ (hospital), ‘patr-in-eco’ )motherhood); Morphemes are unchanging – there is nothing like English “see, sight, visual”.




  1. At a deeper level, however, Esperanto is an isolating language, like Chinese or Vietnamese. Its unchanging morphemes can combine freely, and each one can be used as an independent word, e.g. ino-‘female’, ina- ‘feminine’, ine – ‘in a feminine manner’; eco – forms all abstract nouns, and on its own means ‘quality’. Each morpheme can function as several parts of speech, simply by modifying the endings, e.g. the Chinese phrase “let the father act as a father, and the son as a son”, can be expressed in the four words of the original Patro patru, filo filu.



Pilot scheme in primary schools

We began by referring to one the recommendations of the EU Multilingualism Platform, in which Cor van der Meer played a vitally important role – more research to discover which second language is most likely to encourage subsequent language-learning. This is close to the core of multilingualism policy, and is worth testing in practice. I end with the text of the EU hymn which is normally sung at Esperanto conferences, with Frisian and English translations. My thanks to Cor van der Meer and Truus de Vries.



European Hymn, by Beethoven (text: Umberto Broccatelli)
Kantu kune amikaro, ni la ĝojon festas nur

Nek rivero nek montaro plu landlimoj estas nun

Ho Eŭropo, hejmo nia, tro daŭradis la divid’

Nun brilegu belo via, ĉiu estas via id’!

Via flago kunfratigas homojn post milita temp’
Via leĝo nun kunigas civitanojn en konsent’.

Lit ús mei-inoar sjonge, freonen, lit ús fier’ ús blidens;

noch rivier, noch hege bergen, grinzen binne der net mear.

O, Europa, ús eigen thús, do wiest fierstente lang ferdield.

Lit dyn skjintme no mar skitterje, want eltsenien is dyn neiteam.

Dyn flagge makket ús ta bruorren. Wêr’t d’ oarloch ferdieling brocht,

bringt dyn wet ús by-inoar: boargers yn oerienstimming.


Let us sing together, friends, let us celebrate our joy,

Neither river, nor the mountains, no more borders, ne’er again.

Oh, Europa, our own home, you were divided far too long,

Let your beauty now shine forth, from you only all have come.

Your flag now unites as brothers, those whom war did once divide,

Your own law now brings together, citizens in full accord.



Useful links

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaedeutic_value_of_Esperanto : List of experiments to investigate the propaedeutic value of Esperanto

    2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU : “The Language Challenge: Facing up to Reality”- 8 minutes on Youtube.


Frequent Words

Esperanto/Irish


Mi mé

Estas is

-is aimsir chaite (G. Chlas. )

Ne ní


De de

En i/in


Kiu cé?

Diri deir

Unu aon

Du dó
Mal- mí-



Ĉar mar

Dek deich

Alia eile

Ŝi sí


Tri tri

Kiam cathain

Vera fíor

Kie cá?


Inter idir
Sidi suigh

    -eco -eacht

Okazo ócáid

Tempo t-am

Ekzemplo sampla

Cent céad

Germana Gearmánach

Skribi scríobh

Komisiono coimisiún

Simpla simplí


Libro leabhar

Parto páirt

Kvar ceathair


    -ind in-

Kosto costas

Kredi creid

Lago loch

Legi léigh

Mil míle

Trans trasna


Ĝenerala ginearálta

Saŭno sabhna

Tro ró-

Minuto nóiméad



Ok ocht

Kulturo cultúr



Esperanto Gaeilge

Ses sé


Teatro téatar

Ho! ó!


Diablo diabhal.
Mezo meán

Sep seacht

Pardono pardún

Kanti can

Naŭ naoi

Grupo grúpa

Mateno maidin

Punkto pointe

Papero páipéar

Publika poiblí


Viro fear

Karoto cairéad

Nacio náisiún

Ĉambro seomra

Eŭropo Eoraip

Horo uair

Japano Seapánach

Konkreta coincréiteach

Plano plean

Speciala speisialta


Utila úsáideach

Finna Fionlannach

Formo foirm

Frua luath

Ordo ord

Protokolo prótacal

Tra tríd

Alta ard


Imago íomhá

Irano Iaráin


Kuniklo coinín

Ovo ubh


Prezo praghas

Regiono réigiún

Statuto statúid

Regulo riail

Ĉevalo capall

Dano Danar

Franco Francach

Italo Iodáileach


Literaturo litríocht

Patro athair

Strato sráid

Tasko tasc



Fí fi-


1 Seán Ó Riain is an Irish diplomat currently on secondment to the European Commission. His Ph.D thesis (Trinity College, Dublin, 1985) dealt with language planning in Ireland and Québec. All views expressed in this paper are personal to the author.

2 Dr John Harris, 2006. Irish in Primary Schools - Long-Term National Trends in Achievement. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills, 2006.

3 www.springboard2languages.org.

4 Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto, Dr Geoffrey Sutton, New York: Mondial, 2008. Details at www.librejo.com/enciklopedio/index.html.

5 Over 10,000 literary works have been translated into Esperanto, usually by native speakers of the languages concerned.

6 http://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki. Accessed on 26 March 2011.

7 Die Gefährliche Sprache, Dr Ulrich Lins. Stuttgart: Bleicher Verlag, 1988.

8 Burney, Pierre (1966) Les langues internationales (2-a eld., Paris Presses universitaires de France), p 94.

9 Esperanto – la plej bona propedeǔtiko – materialoj de la internacia konferenco en Moskvo la 13 aprilo 2007 (The most propaedeutic language – material of the international conference in Moscow on 13 April 2007). Moscow: Eǔropa Universitato Justo, p 82.

10 Corsetti, R. and La Torre, M. (2001) Ĉu klara strukturo estas instrua? (Does a clear structure help teaching?) In Schubert, K. 2001 Planned Languages – From Concept to Reality. Brussel: Hogeschool voor Wetenschap en Kunst, p 179-202.

11 http://ilei.info/ipr/smide'liusz.htm. Féach freisin Lobin, Günter (2002): Ein Sprachmodell für den Fremdsprachenunterricht. Der propädeutische Wert einer Plansprache in der Fremdsprachenpädagogik. Aachen: Shaker, Ph.D thesis; and http://www.interlinguistik-gil.de/.

12 « La propedeǔtika valoro konkrete” (1995) (The propedeutic value in practice). Internacia Pedagogia Revuo [2]: 4-12.

13 My own studies, however, have shown that some 20% of the most frequently-used morpheme of Esperanto are, in fact, similar to Irish.

14 Conradh na Gaeilge conference on education, Trinity College, Dublin, 12 September 2006.


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