St. Patrick’s Day Wouldn’t Be Possible Without Language Learning
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If your family is anything like mine, your kitchen smells like corned beef and cabbage today. Though my family has many of its roots in Eastern Europe, somehow, a few generations back, the Irish managed to sneak into our family tree, so once a year we get clover-fever and pull out the green clothes to celebrate this part of our heritage.
St. Patrick, whose life gave us the occasion for this day, was really a remarkable individual from all accounts. As I have heard the story of his life, he was kidnapped as a young man from England, was held as a slave for many years by the Irish, escaped, became a priest and then willingly chose to go back in order to share the love, hope and forgiveness of God with the very people who had done him so much harm.
As I pondered this today, it occurred to me that one of the reasons that St. Patrick was able to accomplish what he did was because of his language skills. A BBC article I once read said that, “in addition to the language of his British parents, and the Latin he learned as a priest, Patrick would have had to speak Irish…” His years of captivity, though doubtlessly difficult and full of many sorrows, put him in a total immersion environment which gave him a great opportunity to learn the language.
History and the fact that every March 17th we celebrate his memory show us the legacy of the great things accomplished through him in part because of his language skills. May his life encourage you, even when things are difficult, to keep pressing on. Great things will come from your mastery of a new language.
The Status of the Irish Language
I want to take a moment to talk about the Irish language. If you have ever been to Ireland, you know that English is by far the most common language you hear on the streets. So, do the Irish actually speak Irish? According to the Ethnologue, a little over 1.1 million of Ireland’s 4.7 million people do. It is most heavily used in several regions along the western coast of Ireland, and though English is more prevalent, Irish is an official language that is taught in the schools and promoted by the government. It is, however, like thousands of the world’s languages, on the decline. This is not to say that it is going away any time soon. When a language has such official status and the backing of a state that promotes its use, this puts it near the top of the scale of language vitality. This means it is like my 75-year-old Irish grandmother who, the last time I called her, had to put her phone down so she could grab the ladder and climb off the roof because she was too impatient to wait for my uncle to clean her gutters. In other words, she’s still alive and kicking!
If more people in Ireland speak English than Irish, is there any value in learning it? If you are just wanting to travel there once and be a tourist for a week, maybe not. You could certainly get around without it. There will be some signs in Irish, though, and certain pockets of the country where it is more widely spoken, and a base knowledge of Irish, if nothing else, will be appreciated by locals as a gesture that you value their language and culture. I would also argue that every language, Irish included, has intrinsic value for several reasons.
First, it is still the native language of some people. For them, this is the language they think in and that resonates deepest with their heart. If you want to make a deep connection with a person, there is no better way than taking the time to learn their language.
Second, every language is a treasure-trove of knowledge. The reality is, translating something from one language to another while maintaining all of the information, contextual connotations and poetic beauty is extremely difficult (though not always impossible). There are stories, histories, poems, songs, and a wealth of other things that were first composed in Irish and are best appreciated in Irish.
Third, for millions of my fellow Americans, Irish is the language of your roots. I know I have felt great disconnection from my roots in my life, and have found great joy in the experiences I have had as an adult reconnecting with them through learning the languages of my ancestors and traveling to the places they came from. It has grown in me a deeper appreciation for history, a sense of connection with people in other parts of the world, and a desire to help my own children understand their story and how it fits into the great story of humanity.
If you have any desire to connect with your Irish roots, below are a few words you can share with your family today, along with one of my favorite books on Ireland and an excellent resource for mastering the basics of Irish.
Irish Words and Phrases:
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! – Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!
Hello! – Dia dhuit!
Hello! (reply) – Dia is Muire dhuit!
Thank you – Go raibh maith agat
I love you – Gráím thú
Good health (a toast) – Sláinte mhaith!
Goodbye! – Slán
I was required to read this book during a world history class in my undergraduate studies, and it was one of the few books that I decided to keep when I graduated (until I loaned it to my brother-in-law, who hasn’t given it back, hint hint if you’re reading this!). It is a fascinating story of a side of the Irish we rarely hear about and the role they played in preserving Western Civilization during the dark ages.
I make no secret of the fact that I like Rosetta Stone. I have used it in two languages, and find it is very effective and gives you a ton of material for the price. While nothing beats a live tutor, this comes pretty close, and even offers live tutoring with some of its online extra packages. Good for getting a foundational knowledge of Irish. (I have no affiliation with Rosetta Stone and receive no compensation for promoting their products).
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