Why I am Learning Irish


Irish also known as Gaeilge, is considered to be a vulnerable language with less than a quarter of a million people still speaking the language (~200,000) daily and (~2,000,000) know the language at the elementary level or above. However, there are some places that holdfast to tradition, such as the Gaeltacht which consist of districts in Ireland, inside which Irish is the predominately spoken language.

What is more interesting is that Early Irish literature was the first vernacular literature in western Europe[1]. Vernacular literature, refers to literature in the common tongue. Meaning that it could be interpreted by the entire populous rather than just one particular group. This likely stems from the fact that Rome withdrew from Britain in 383 – 410 A.D. never conquering Ireland. The political system of Rome never made it to Ireland and although there was a heavy influence from Christianity, many of their clan traditions remained (meaning the society was communal in nature).

The first representation of Irish was the Ogham language (similar to runes), however in the 4th – 5th centuries the Latin alphabet began to be used to represent Irish, most notably Saint Patrick completed several works during this time. From this point on Irish was used to write epics, poems, novels, and more, but throughout the history of the Irish language poetry was often held in the highest regard. Irish was one of the first languages to use rhyming in their poetry, as well as the first vernacular poetry in Western Europe.

However, in the 17th – 19th century English disfavor towards Irish as well as The Great Potato Famine lead to a severe decline in the language. As of 2000 there was only ~80,000 native speakers of Irish (using it in both business and family environments). Over the past several decades there has been a strong push in Ireland to increase the number of speakers by adding services as well as teaching Irish. For the most part, the efforts seem to be moderately successful, although the results are mixed and only more time will tell.

My Thoughts

A bheith acu go bhfuil creideamh aoibhneas, ag obair go crua is ciallmhar.

Personally, I feel it is important to learn multiple languages, for several reasons:

  1. Intelligence – there is fairly strong evidence [2][3][4], that bilingualism increases the brains ability to problem solve, as well as reducing the effects of aging on the brain.
  2. Secrecy – what better way to keep something secret than encrypting everything you say? Speaking Italian in France is probably not that uncommon and there is a fair chance that someone can understand what you are saying. However, speaking Irish in the United States when only maybe 60,000 speakers in a country of 330,000,000 understand what you are saying make it highly improbable.
  3. Community – “Those who dine together stay together,” that is something my mother told me when I was young. Family, to many, is very important and in order to stay close with a family or really anyone is to communicate with them. What makes many cultures unique is their language, which in fact influences at least in part what/how people think.

One of the greatest powers of language is that to diversify and unify. Part of the reason the British hated the Irish language being spoken throughout history is that it made it difficult to assimilate Ireland into the British empire. Further, the IRA were able to use Irish to both hide from their plots/communications from the British as well as create a sense of unity.

Due to the reasons above I chose to learn Irish. What I hope to gain some extra cognitive capacity and the ability to communicate in secret. My girlfriend is learning Irish with me, enabling us to communicate being understood by others and creating a stronger bond between us.

Further, in the future if I own a company of some kind I would like to offer employees the option to learn Irish (or some other language) and offer a financial incentive to do so. Doing so would create a stronger bond within the company, a unique company culture, and enable the company employees to discuss even secret plans in public. It would be highly advantageous and worth it for any company to offer 5 hours of tutoring in a non-native language a week in a particular subject during work hours to do so. It would again follow all of the reasons above and overall improve the company as well as the employees lives.

Regardless of business dreams, I am learning Irish to improve my life. It pushes me to think differently and I honestly enjoy figuring out ways in which to describe something. It is different than many languages and I find it highly entertaining. I have already spent the last 4 months learning Irish and can speak with an elementary proficiency, and hope by the end of the year to be able to read Eachtraí Eilíse i dTír na nIontas (Alice in Wonderland).

Further Reading

Fluent in Three Months

3 thoughts on “Why I am Learning Irish

  1. Okay, thoughts:

    I thought your intelligence point was a little counter-intuitive, but after some google scholaring, it seems legit. I’m tentatively going to accept it as true. (I’m generally skeptical of “this improves intelligence” arguments given Algernon’s law.) This sorta dovetails nicely with the fact that deaf people who are taught language become more intelligent. (Although I forget where I read that now…) I wonder if some of the benefit of being bilingual is the ability to translate a concept into a different medium, which I wrote about here as a better way to understand something and here as an aid to problem solving.

    Maybe the results transfer for knowing a programming language? Formalizing a concept can produce a lot of insight — how can I teach a computer which books are good and which aren’t? — but translating a book from English to Irish is a different ballpark than trying to translate a book from English to Haskell. Maybe Lojban is sort of intermediate on the programming/human language dichotomy.

    Right, right. Two other reasons for picking up a language that I can think of:

    * It’s fun.
    * You gain access to works written in Irish and people who speak it. (Less of a selling point for Irish than, say, Chinese, but hey.)
    * Language learning is difficult so it can act as a sort of blueprint for learning other things. If you wanted to learn a lot about algorithms, you might think, “How could I learn this like I would a language?” I get a certain sense, too, that language learners are more serious about learning than others e.g. adopting tools like Anki and seeking immersion.

    By the way, you might want to follow Scott Young if you aren’t already. I think he’s learning Chinese right now and has been posting about language lately.

  2. Question for you: If learning a language builds community and family, then why choose Irish? Do you have family who speaks it? I learned Spanish because I have visited Mexico, Ecuador, and Spain, and because my husband’s once-removed family lives in Spain. Not only has it come in handy in the practical sense, but it builds a bond with those I speak to (even strangers!) because I made the attempt to speak in their heart language (which is something many English speakers don’t appreciate, when non-native speakers learn English!)

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