One of the things I enjoyed most about studying Irish at school was learning about how the language compared to other Celtic languages. It really brought home to me that we were once part of a bigger tribe spread throughout Ireland, Britain and beyond speaking in tongues that were related but not necessarily mutually intelligible. On a visit to Scotland when I was 21 I was so happy to be able to read many words written in Scots Gaelic. Last year I was so overwhelmed by meeting a group of Welsh speakers in Cork that I started learning basic Welsh (regrettably abandoned since). It’s not that I buy into the myth of Celtic commonality, it has far more to do with the fact that these languages are like an ancient music. To hear somebody speak any of the Celtic languages fluently is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It makes me pine for what could have been.
I thought about this when reading this article in the Daily Telegraph about the laudable plan to reintroduce compulsory foreign language teaching in English schools. In the comments section I read the expected reactions, there are of course pros and cons relating to that decision. For me personally what is unusual is the fact that the UK press is always so focused on ‘foreign’ languages. I can never recall any suggestion to teach ‘domestic’ languages in British schools. When you consider that Celtic languages were spoken all over Britain long before English emerged it shows no regard for the history of Britain. Moreover, it reinforces the idea that Britain has a ‘Celtic fringe’ rather than reminding people that the people living in English towns in the distant past spoke in languages more like Welsh than English.
My personal view is that English-speaking children should first be taught about languages in general rather than forced to learn a particular language. In Ireland there is a national prerogative to maintain the Irish language but quite often bad experiences with learning Irish turn people against learning any other language. It is not unusual to meet an Irish person who cannot converse in any language other than English after up to fourteen years of schooling in Irish and five years in French or German. English people can justifiably blame monolingualism on a school system that is very unsupportive of any language except English but Irish people clearly do not have that excuse.
If children could understand that English is itself a mix of other languages and that their forefathers are quite likely to have spoken very different languages then maybe the ‘foreign’ aspect of language learning would be removed. The more languages you speak the less ‘foreign’ other people become. There are few examples of countries with only one domestic language. It seems to me that understanding that your own country has more than one language and maybe even learning a few important words from that language might help with getting children’s minds ready to learn second and subsequent languages. Maybe English children would find it interesting that penguin is a loan word from Welsh (from ‘pengwin’ were pen is head and gwin is white)?
P.S. Thanks to Simon @ Omniglot for the link to the DT article.