Navigating Multilingualism in the Irish Context

Navigating Multilingualism in the Irish Context

There can often be misconceptions when it comes to bilingualism, particularly in Ireland. Sometimes people forget that when we talk about bilingualism we don’t solely speak about migrants. Ireland has three official languages (Irish, English and Irish Sign Language) and therefore is a bilingual and multilingual country in its own right. Most people would presume that growing up in a country where a parent is fluent in one of the official languages (Irish) also guarantees fluency for their child in that language. However, Fiona’s story defies such assumptions, shedding light on the complexity of being Irish and raising multilingual children with the languages of English and Irish.


Navigating language dynamics

Born and raised in Ireland, Fiona comes from an English-speaking family. However, a pivotal educational choice introduced her to Irish. Attending a Gaelscoil, an Irish-medium immersive school, empowered Fiona with fluency in Irish, something that not all people have! Her proficiency later opened doors for her to become a primary school teacher in a Gaelscoil and use the language every day.

Challenges and choices

Despite her strong connection to Ireland, Fiona’s relationship with the language has evolved over time. While Irish was once the language she used to chat to people, to think and it was even the language she dreamt in, its role has shifted. Her partner’s fluency in Irish differed from hers, leading to a choice that many bilingual parents face: which language to speak at home. Fiona’s husband’s confidence with Irish impacted the language choices within their family. Although Fiona occasionally speaks Irish to her children, the predominant language spoken at home is English. 

I think it's just more natural, but my husband was kind of reluctant to have it as one of our languages in the family. He doesn't have the same level of understanding of Irish as I do. So, I would use it with the children a little bit, but they wouldn't hear myself and my husband use it between us.

Overcoming obstacles

Fiona’s experience also touches upon the obstacles that can be faced when trying to nurture bilingualism in Ireland. The importance of social context becomes evident as she highlights the challenge of maintaining Irish outside of her professional life. She explains that she has limited opportunities to converse in Irish, except in her workplace or with her children. This insight speaks to the broader societal dynamics that influence language choices and interactions. It also shows that even one of the official languages of the country is not so widely spoken by everyone! 

I suppose for me, speaking it with my children the only opportunity I have to use my Gaeilge outside of work, I don't have anyone else to speak it with.

Fiona’s experience navigating the Irish-English dynamic sheds light on the intricate linguistic reality that characterises Ireland—a nation where language choices reflect not only personal preferences but also historical and cultural complexities. 

Support and resources are essential in this context as well.  Mother Tongues offers a wealth of very useful tools that can be used also by Irish-speaking parents seeking assistance in fostering the Irish language at home. Our Learning Hub provides hundreds of valuable resources, articles and practical tips to empower parents in their multilingual journey. Additionally, our free creative workshops, Language Explorers offer a communal space to exchange experiences, share challenges and create a special bond with your children through art-making. 

Finally, for all the Irish language lovers, don’t miss out “Solas,” an exciting play in progress accompanied by a workshop conducted in Irish by artist Carmel Stephens, part of the Mother Tongues Festival.

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