Regular Gobblefunked readers will know that we’ve recently added an ‘as Gaeilge‘ section to our reviews section in the hopes of encouraging children, parents and teachers to buy and read more books in Irish. But what’s it like to bring your children up in a bilingual or even trilingual household and how do you encourage them to read books as Gaeilge. Aonghus Ó hAlmhain shares some insights.
That I speak Irish at all is a result of the early 20th century revival. My great grandfather was an active member of Conradh na Gaeilge; his son – my grandfather – learned Irish by immersing himself in the Kerry Gaeltacht, in Com Dhíneoil. He went on to bring up his three children, my father included, speaking Irish in Dalkey – inevitably they also spoke English.
I grew up in a bilingual household in Terenure, in Dublin. While we spent our family holiday on Inis Mór in Galway, I had very little contact with the Gaeltacht – no relatives there. I attended an Irish medium primary school, but an English medium secondary school.
The result is that Gaeltacht na Leabhar – the Gaeltacht of Books – is and was an important part of nurturing my Irish. Having been brought up across the road from a public library and having had a houseful of books when I growing up, I have always been a voracious reader.
When I moved to Berlin in 1990, I was even more isolated from Irish. I did manage to find one or two other Irish speakers in the city – by dint of looking for Ó or Mac in the phonebook, but prior to the internet (which I only gained access to in the mid 90s) books and magazines were vital to keeping my Irish alive.
They became more vital when I married and had children. I knew that my children would not learn Irish unless they learned it from me. I wasn’t worried about them not learning English; English is more or less inevitable. And so it proved, when in 2000 I returned to Ireland with my wife and two sons, both fluent in Irish and German. Within months they also spoke fluent English.
That they spoke Irish was due to a conscious decision that I would speak Irish to them, and my wife would speak German. We both read to them. This was vital for me to build my vocabulary and theirs. Fortunately, especially for young children, there is a wealth of wonderful books in Irish – stories and non-fiction alike. This has been further improved with new publishers such as Futa Fata and Leabhar Breac joining the ranks of Cló Iar Chonnacht, Coiscéim and An Gúm.
There is also beginning to be a greater emphasis on catering for independent readers, although teenagers are still very poorly served. This leads to a vicious circle. My own sons had no difficulty tackling weighty tomes in German or English as teenagers – Eragon, The Book Thief, the Harry Potter series of course. But their lack of practice reading in Irish made reading Irish a chore – making them reluctant to engage with the few suitable books there are. Leabhar Breac are addressing that gap and Liam Mac Cóil’s swashbuckler An Litir has been read with pleasure by my second son (as well as by me).
Obviously being in Ireland and having access to Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4, and the wealth of material in Irish now available for children on the internet has made things easier. But I am still in the habit of reading books in Irish for my daughter who is now nine. And she is beginning to read them herself too.
Publishers are working hard to supply that demand – whether by translation, as Cló Iar Chonnacht is doing with The Famous Five series, or by commissioning and publishing original work.
The availability of internet buying, whether through publishers websites or from dedicated sites such as Litriocht.com has made it easier to get books. The main difficulty is knowing what books there are, and whether they are worth buying!