Raising the next generation with Irish

January 2022
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Two children smile at the camera with books.

by Gráinne Ní Mhuilneoir

If you weren't raised with Irish yourself, you can still give the gift of Irish to your child. You are allowed to! Now, with that out of the way, let's talk about it.

You don’t need to have fluent Irish to be able to use it with your child. I’ve met a lot of people who have told me they have ‘no Irish’ but, with a bit of encouragement, they are actually well able to hold a conversation (even if that’s very simple). Or people think they don’t have ‘enough’ Irish because they haven’t reached the right level of perfection yet. We are excellent in this country at putting ourselves down, at deflecting compliments and refusing to be confident. In my experience, if you’ve done Irish in school, particularly in secondary school to any level, you might have more Irish than you realise.

Books can help! They can offer support, give you stories, words, and sounds to share with your family. A lot of parents and guardians come to us in An Siopa Leabhar with questions – about books, initially, and then often for a chat about how they're getting on with speaking Irish in the home.

I've gathered some useful information here, based on those chats. I also spoke to some parents and guardians (who weren't raised with Irish) but who are currently raising their kids with Irish or who are Gaeilge-positive. These are Sadhbh, Tarsila, and Aaron and Gearóidín.

I also spoke to one of the ‘children’, Saorlaith, who is now a grown-up and who was raised with Irish (by parents who were not native speakers).

So, what's the story, if you want to raise your kids with Irish?

Your child will not be confused

The notion of ‘confusion’ is a major concern for some parents or guardians thinking about speaking Irish to their children. Children take in languages in a very different way to how adults learn languages. They will not be confused if there are multiple languages used consistently in the household. Children are better equipped to deal with multiple languages than grown-ups. Grown-ups tend to think about it too much! Children can soak up words, phrases, structures, and sounds without really thinking about it. If they mix languages within sentences early on (and this is very common), children tend to grow out of this as they learn to distinguish between the two (or three!) languages.

Your child will understand English

Even if you speak nothing but Irish to your child, they will be surrounded by English. It is no fault of yours if they speak English to you early on. As Tarsila said to me, ‘English is everywhere’. Relatives, other families and children, books, television, songs – they will invariably hear a lot of English. Especially when they start school, and they realise that not all families speak the same language.

A group of children in school uniform read in a garden

Both caregivers don't have to speak Irish (if there are two in the home)

One parent or guardian can pass Irish on to a child. If there is another caregiver in the home, who maybe doesn't have much or any Irish, that's okay. The best thing the non-Irish-speaking adult can do is be open to picking up some vocabulary and have a positive attitude about the language. If the other parent or guardian is worried about not understanding Irish (I've heard this one a lot!), you can explain what you'll be saying and agree that you won't be contradicting each other's parenting.

‘Whatever decision is made it is important that both parents support it.’ This is one of many, many great pieces of advice in ‘Speaking Irish at Home: A Guide for Parents’. This bilingual booklet, produced by Comhluadar, is now available to download for free on An Siopa Leabhar's website under ‘Info for Parents’.

You should agree in advance about rules and general approaches about day-to-day activities. The last thing you want is for one adult to give one direction in Irish, and the other to say the opposite in another language! 

Sadhbh had a fulltime job through Irish after her children arrived, and when she went back to work after her maternity leave, it was her English-speaking husband who stayed home with the kids. She wasn't worried. Openness to speaking Irish was her primary goal, and she kept speaking to them in Irish only. She says, ‘Irish is a means of communication at the end of the day, and I want to communicate with my children.’ These days, over ten years later, Sadhbh's children speak to her in whatever language makes the most sense for the conversation, starting conversation in Irish or in English with equal comfort.

Irish as the first language you ever speak to you child

When you meet someone new, the first exchange you have with that person might well dictate the language you speak to them the next time you see them. It can be quite jarring to change that language later (though not impossible). It may be easier for you to start off speaking Irish with your child from the beginning – if this decision is made before the child arrives. This helps to create and solidify the habit.

From the beginning, Sadhbh decided to speak to her children in Irish. She used Eric Hill's Bran books basically from the week they came home from the hospital. This allowed her to share the sounds of Irish with her children and to introduce sentence structures without having to think too much about it. The Irish for ‘boardbook’ is ‘leabhar cairtchláir’, a book with thick pages, suitable for small hands. There's a great and growing selection of boardbooks in Irish, such as books in the Babaí Beag, Coinín Beag, Dainín and Bran ranges.

You can use books very soon after the child's arrival

You can develop a habit of speaking Irish long before your child starts talking. Sadhbh points out that parents and guardians have a lot of space to fill in the conversation before your child can talk back to you – you have to keep coming up with things to say! This is where books can really help, as well as relatives and friends, the radio, television, songs and apps or resources online.

Listening to a story together and exploring vibrant pictures can be a special experience to share with your child. Not only that, but if (or when!) you run out of ideas for things to say, you can turn to a book. With very small children, you could even be reading from a news article, a novel, or a page from a dictionary. In the early days, what you’re saying doesn't need to make much sense; it's important to share as many sounds of Irish as you can and create the habit of speaking Irish in the home. It's worth getting a membership with your local library, as this will give you access to all the Irish language childrens books in your local branch and from other branches via interlibrary loans. And it's free!

Gaschaint is a book for parents and guardians, which includes 2,000 phrases for daily life (e.g., the trip to school, mealtimes, getting dressed). Gaeloideachas have also released a booklet with phrases for parents and guardians sending their children to a naíonra, with some useful phrases.

Send your child to a naíonra or Irish-medium school (if possible)

Aaron and Gearóidín knew early on that they wanted to send their child to a gaelscoil. Tarsila and her husband decided to send their child to a gaelscoil too when a new school opened in their area. They hope, when the time comes, that there will be the option for an Irish-medium secondary school close to them. (See An Foras Patrúnachta – foras.ie – about lobbying for founding new Irish-medium schools if there isn't already one in your locality.)

A gaelscoil opened close to Sadhbh's home the year she was born, and she and all her younger siblings went to that school. It wasn't until she was in her early teens that she realised that not everyone went to a school like hers. Irish has been a part of their lives ever since, and they all speak it to some extent, with three out of four of their sibling group working with Irish.

Laureate na nÓg Áine Ní Ghlinn reads to a child on a bench outdoors

If you have an older child and you've been speaking English (or another language) in the home

You can also introduce Irish later. Sometimes parents and guardians don't have the conversation about language until the talk starts about which school or preschool to enrol in. It's still possible to bring Irish in at this point.

You can start with a little bit and build up slowly. You could use a few words around the table at breakfast (ar mhaith leat Weetabix?), or on the school run (seo linn anois!) and introduce more and more as time goes on. If the child is a little older, particularly if they're already in preschool or school, they might notice the change. Don't be afraid to use this as an opportunity to talk about different people speaking different languages.

The book Language Explorers by Mother Tongues is very good (for 7+) and helps children to explore different languages and cultures.

There are sounds and structures in Irish that are not present in English. As we grow up, we get worse at recognising different sounds and being able to produce them (without conscious effort and active learning). It's an advantage to pass those sounds on to your child, for future understanding of Irish and as an introduction to differences between languages in general.

Your child doesn't want to speak Irish to you ...

Don't be surprised if your child speaks English to you. Your child will not be thinking about language in any sort of political sense; your child will speak in whatever way they think will best express their idea or is most likely to receive a response.

I hear this one very often from parents and guardians, that their child answers them in English or uses English very often. You are the only one who can decide the language you will speak. Your child also likely understands a huge amount of what you are saying – they've just also heard English and they might be noticing that not everyone speaks Irish.

It is strongly recommended that you do not try to force them to speak Irish to you 100% of the time. Allow them to answer you in English, if they are listening to you speaking Irish, understanding, and engaging. Act as though you do not understand English, or that you are ‘just learning’. If you give in, it will be much more difficult to switch back.

When I was talking to Aaron, he reiterated this point, saying that it is hugely important that you are patient when this happens and that you continue to speak Irish. The situation will improve with time.

Using Irish outside the home

The more places you can use Irish, the better. It's important to speak it in public, and proudly so. When I started speaking Irish in public (not public speaking, but just talking with my friends in an otherwise English-speaking environment) I felt very self-conscious about it. With time and practice, it started to come much more naturally.

You can use Irish when you're out shopping, or off for a trip to the beach. You might even encourage others to speak Irish or hear another family speaking Irish and use it to strike up a conversation! In our conversation, Saorlaith mentioned specifically how having Irish at home opened doors in life, to friendships and to job opportunities, that otherwise she may never have had.

Aaron recommends looking for services in Irish whenever and wherever possible, whether that's in the library, the zoo, or elsewhere. This might take the form of an Irish leaflet or map, using (and reading) the Irish on signs and signposts, or asking, ‘An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?’

Keep an eye out for chances to speak Irish with people, and to meet other families with Irish (through school, clubs, Pop-Up Gaeltacht na nÓg). Look out for events with Irish (maybe in the local library) or you could start your own events if that’s your sort of thing. (See the end of this piece for a list of some organisations that might help)

If you can find a childminder or babysitter with Irish, it's worth it. Whether that's someone who minds the child a few days a week, or perhaps a babysitter who might be doing one night a week. (This could also be a way for a student at Leaving Cert level to get some practice in). This would be another opportunity to show the child that others also speak Irish. 

Above all else, do not use Irish solely to correct or as the only language of discipline. Don't be worried if beautifully poetic Irish sentences aren't coming easily to your child, and don't feel the need to correct them – rather, give as many good examples as you can in your own speech and encourage them when they do speak Irish.

You don't have to have all the answers

Aaron explains it better than I ever could. (I've translated this from our conversation in Irish.)

‘Many parents have limited experience with changing nappies before the first child arrives, and often the level of Irish is limited too. But I got pretty good at changing nappies, and our use of Irish in the home grew in the same way … with practice. At the end of the day, somehow, Irish is my child's first language, following much trial and error. Don't beat yourself up over the odd nappy explosion!’

Some organisations and resources

We have a list on the An Siopa Leabhar website under ‘Info for Parents’, which we update as we hear about different resources and organisations.  

See Teanga Tí (teangati.ie) for advice, activities, and resources for raising a child with Irish. They also run and share information about events for families.

Glór na nGael offer supports and advice for families who wish to have Irish as the language in the home. 

Ógras (ogras.ie) is an organisation for events and camps for young people between 8 and 19 years of age. They have two age-groups in the clubs: 8–12 and 13–19.

If you are in the Gaeltacht, look for Tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta (eolas@tuismitheoiri.ie), Muintearas and Tús Maith (Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne).

If you're based in Dublin, check out the GAA club Na Gaeil Óga (nagaeiloga.ie). Irish is the working language of the club, on the pitch and off, and they have teams across a range of ages.

Wherever you are, you can find events on peig.ie and register information about your own events so others can find them. 

To raise a child with Irish, you'll need determination. You can create a habit for yourself and for your child – a habit that will enrich your own life and theirs. Use whatever Irish you have – and be open to learning as you go. Be positive and hopeful. You'd be surprised at the effect that positivity can have!

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