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:
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 pensée”8 (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.
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:
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.
-is aimsir chaite (G. Chlas. )
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.
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 : 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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