Saturday, 26 March 2011

Mandarin — is it an Orange thing?

Lindy McDowell in the Belfast Telegraph has an opinion piece on Caitríona Ruane's tenure at the Department of Education. The latest episode in the saga is largely what we have come to expect, i.e. with a focus ostensibly on the abolition of the 11-plus but expressed with a peculiarly unwarranted vehemence that suggests the subtext may be power-sharing itself. Like more than one such article, McDowell's piece gives marks to Caitríona: a rhetorical flourish or wishful thinking? After all, one might point out, on the issue of grammar schools the Sinn Féin Minister is only attempting to bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain — or indeed, not even that, since her avowed target is the blunt instrument of the transfer test rather than the existence of more academically focused second-level institutions.

Recent coverage of Ruane in the Belfast Telegraph has bordered on the neuralgic, with screaming headlines about children — presumably Protestant — learning Irish, as if they would all turn into Catholic pumpkins at midnight if they started learning a little about the history and place-names of their native province. At its most basic level, such cheap reporting exploits atavistic fears. It may also reinforce them.

The Blether Region was struck by one line in an editorial, stating that the Bel-Tel "believes in a system which rewards merit". (Note to editor: the argument that the "reward" of a better education than might otherwise be gained goes to those who display "merit" by learning to the transfer test is an argument of those who oppose the 11-plus. Those who support it, on the other hand, argue that it is a sensitive gauge of the most suitable education for a child).

Be that as it may. Lindy McDowell's piece includes the following comment on the Minister's plans to give more Protestant children the chance to learn Gaelic.

"Not that there is anything wrong with Irish (although Mandarin might perhaps be more useful. Or even a sound vocational training)."

One really does wonder how many children could ever become fluent in a radically different language such as Chinese (an aside: surely the Cantonese dialect would be easier to pick up in Northern Ireland). If anyone has ever read the manual of a Chinese electrical product, then it should have alerted them to how Europeans probably sound in Chinese. However, if any children do manage to learn it, the Blether Region will bet that it is not the first foreign language that they have attempted.

Does Ms McDowell genuinely believe that those who learn Mandarin will be language virgins? It is, after all, a commonplace among practical linguists that, having mastered one language, of whatever type, an individual will find it easier to learn another. A reasonably different tongue such as Irish would provide both a grounding in language learning and an indication of language aptitude — a sort of 11-plus, in fact, only more relevant.

And anyone who has ever attended a course at Oideas Gael will know that, far from being the sole concern of ideologues or dreamers, Irish is in fact big business; its teaching attracts many foreign students. Making money from Chinese, on the other hand, would be likely to presuppose a resurgence in manufacturing, probably of machine tools, a rather big ask.

An obsession with Mandarin at the expense of Irish displays a failure of entrepreneurial imagination but also a reflexive assumption that what is native is without value — and a projection of that mindset onto a world that may think quite differently.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Ballot Box and the Grammar Book

Purdah began yesterday in Northern Ireland, and, contrary to the spin, it looks like there will be no big announcement from Nelson McCausland regarding an Ulster-Scots Academy. As readers will be able to gauge from press articles, radio phone-ins or general conversation, the notion of an academy is very unpopular with ordinary Unionists, so the Minister always had something of a tightrope to walk vis-à-vis pleasing an important activist constituency and not bringing his party into disrepute with the voters. He was a very skilled prevaricator when it came to delaying the promised languages strategy too, behaviour that will for many people have served to confirm their suspicions that the Minister's antipathy towards Irish easily trumped any desire on his part to do something for Ulster Scots.

There will clearly be great pressure on Sinn Féin to take the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure after the Assembly election, pressure that will be all the stronger if the party loses control of Education, which is probably of more importance to Irish. However, that scenario seems unlikely, since it is generally accepted that the largest party will most likely wish to take Finance as its first choice under the d'Hondt system, and, recent speculation notwithstanding, that largest party is still likely to be the DUP. If the DUP takes Finance as its first choice, then Sinn Féin, likely to be the second-placed party, will be able to take Education. Given the controversy surrounding the abolition of the 11-plus, however, it would definitely need to choose the Department at the first available opportunity.

While theoretically a DUP Finance Minister could neuter any attempts to promote Irish more vigorously through DCAL, in practical terms, to win the support of the Assembly, he or she would still need to offer a reasonable settlement to the largest Nationalist party. Readers will recall that, last time around, DUP and Sinn Féin Departments did well, while the SDLP and UUP felt the squeeze, with the latter's Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in a particularly difficult position.

Among the bigger reasons the DUP might have for ditching Culture is, strangely enough, that proposed Ulster-Scots Academy. As stated here before, if Nelson McCausland were to remain Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure after May and attempt a U-turn on an academy, he would instantly lose all credibility. Better for him and for the party to avoid any uncomfortable dilemmas by bailing out now.

Of course, back in the first Assembly, the UUP took Culture, partly to balance against the effect of Education then being in the hands of Martin McGuinness. Could that scenario arise this time around? Well, given that Culture was such a late pick on the last occasion the d'Hondt procedure was run, it could theoretically go to any party — although the Irish-language community would be likely to experience extreme disillusionment at Sinn Féin, the only party in the Assembly with an Irish name, were it not to take the Department at an early stage.

That said, barring an attempt by the UUP to "out-right" (in James Molyneux's words) the DUP, any party's candidate would be better as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure than the present incumbent.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Tally of the Bally

Census day 2011 will soon be upon us, with forms due to be delivered to households across Northern Ireland over the next two weeks or so.

The Blether Region predicts another increase in the numbers of those able to understand, speak, read and write Irish. It further predicts that Unionist elected representatives will claim that people have exaggerated their ability in the language for political reasons. It is to be hoped that such claims can be dispelled, or at least heavily qualified, by a proper follow-up study.

Meanwhile, for the first time, a question on ability in Scots is to be included.

Predictably, census organisers have bowed to the politicised construction that is "Ulster-Scots", ignoring speakers of other Scots dialects resident in Northern Ireland. The Blether Region will be taking a rather angry pen to that part of the census form in an attempt to disabuse the demographers of their ignorance and recommends that other Scots-speakers who lack an Ulster accent do the same. If they try to put us in prison for it, the publicity can only advance our cause.

In Scotland, an attractive new website has been launched to help people determine whether they speak Scots. Strangely enough, the Blether Region suspects that many speakers of "Ulster-Scots" can speak Scots too.

That's because it's the same language.