Doing a Disservice to Gaeilge

I follow a number of teacher blogs through Facebook and I’m quite interested to see what these blogs have to offer. Some offer sage advice covering the many aspects of primary school teaching. Unfortunately, I occasionally come across bad advice. The latest I’ve seen is a mention of using translation, with very little comhrá, during an Irish lesson. This bothers me as the blog in question is quite popular, therefore many newer teachers or student teachers will be on the receiving end of unhelpful, or possibly damaging, advice.

Comhrá should be an integral part of any Gaeilge lesson, at any level in primary school – from Junior Infants to Sixth Class. This sets the foundation for the reading and written work that will come later on. Gaeilge will be an additional language to the overwhelming majority of primary school pupils so it needs to be taught with that in mind. The way we learn our mother tongue is through listening to the language and by beginning to use the words that have become familiar to us. We build this up to a level where the foundation for reading and writing is solid. The same approach to Gaeilge, albeit in a slightly altered form, is necessary. From First and Second Classes onwards, pupils will have begun to use reading and writing in their Irish lessons. This does not and should not take the place of oral work. Pupils should get used to using the vocabulary orally before they attempt to apply their reading and writing skills. Using language is naturally an oral activity so this should be applied in the classroom – use language in its natural form before tackling it at a more abstract level.

Translation is a useful skill in and of itself but it is not the sort of skill that should be encouraged during an Irish lesson. Translation slows down the thinking process if it is applied to the use of a language in a natural setting. The (bad) advice I read on a particular blog encouraged teachers to get their students to translate verbs as a part of a game. In the same breath the advice was not to do this in front of an inspector, so the question is – why bother suggesting translation in the first place if they know it is unacceptable?

Translation is a tedious way for children to learn or to practise a language. If the teacher is going to translate everything, that’s what the children will wait for. Why would they pay any attention to the Irish vocabulary if the translation to English is on the way? Their exposure to Irish will therefore be extremely limited because there’s no real motivation to listen to it. Translation is not real teaching and should never be considered an effective methodology for use with primary school pupils. The more effective way to teach Irish is through Irish, which can appear difficult at first but with some thought and consideration in advance, it won’t pose a problem. Speech should be clear and not rushed, with altered pitch when appropriate. Gestures should accompany speech where possible and visual aides will be invaluable. Will the pupils understand every single word you say? Most likely not. Will they get the gist? Highly likely. Give the pupils an opportunity to use what they have been taught with a partner or in a whole-class setting. Don’t be too worried about their mistakes because every language learner makes mistakes. When the focus is on encouraging use instead of correcting mistakes or just translating everything, you will begin to see success.

It is doing a huge disservice to Gaeilge  – and to the pupils who are learning it – if it is taught without the effort required for success. Teaching Irish properly in school will not answer the question of why some people choose not to use it in any other context – this is a discussion for another blog post. However, providing the best conditions for learning the language will at least give children the opportunity to make a real choice.

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