Monday, 31 October 2011

Common Romance

Data supplied in answer to an Assembly Question last week appear to back up last month's suggestion by the Blether Region that Interlingua should be introduced to controlled secondaries as an alternative to more traditional modern foreign languages. The table supplied in answer to AQW 3578/11-15 shows a steep decline in the number of pupils studying a language to GCSE level since the Labour Government abolished the requirement that they do so back in 2004. Indeed, the figures from 2001 to 2009 show constant decline, from 17,472 to 11,574 total entries, respectively. However, at the same time, there has been a rise in the number of those achieving A* to C grades, from 68.4% to 80.4%. Moreover, the number of those going on to sit a modern foreign language at A Level has remained remarkably constant, with almost identical numbers sitting the exam in 2001 and 2009.

Needless to say, the collapse in the number of those studying languages to GCSE and the apparently improved grades of those who still do so may well be related phenomena. A large cohort of pupils who do not derive great benefit from conventional language teaching have been removed from the statistics, thus artificially boosting the percentages. Indeed, smaller, higher-ability classes at GCSE level may even have had an effect on the statistics for A Level passes, which have also improved.

Effectively, those not gifted linguistically have been disenfranchised twice: first by the requirement that they study a modern foreign language to GCSE level; and secondly by the expectation that they not have any kind of language instruction at all beyond Key Stage 3. In England, the signs are that the coalition Government will reintroduce the language requirement. However, that would amount to resiling from the current unsatisfactory policy in favour of its equally unsatisfactory and discredited predecessor.

Common sense suggests that academically and linguistically gifted pupils — those who already master the communicative element of language learning — should concentrate on accuracy in speech and writing while those not so gifted should concentrate on communication alone. And one need only consult a map of the distribution of Romance varieties to see that Interlingua can facilitate communication with native speakers of foreign languages like nothing else.

Northern Ireland is the largest region in these islands to have retained a grammar-school system. While that system may be failing in other ways, it does provide fertile ground for a reform of the type suggested.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

We've Come a Long Way

The BBC reports that Coláiste Feirste has won an important battle in its struggle to force the Department of Education to fund transport to the school from areas outside Belfast with Irish-language primaries but no equivalent provision at post-primary level.

Granting a full judicial review, Mr. Justice Treacy argued that the Department had "failed to comply with a duty under the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to provide suitable transport to encourage Irish education.", adding that "I do not accept the respondent's contention that this duty is merely aspirational."

The "aspirational" argument is of course relevant to many topics involving minority languages, from the access to TG4 in Northern Ireland first promised in 1998 to the promotion of Scots in Scotland, once memorably termed "voluntarism masquerading as policy" by the academic Robert McColl Millar.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Orchestral Manoeuvres?

A written answer to an Assembly Question details every project to have received funding from the Ulster-Scots Agency over the past three years.

The Blether Region will leave it to readers what to make of it ...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Gaeilgeoirí Uladh

Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure took place on Tuesday. Staff and stakeholders of the Northern Ireland Irish-language groups threatened with closure under Foras na Gaeilge's proposed new funding arrangements have grounds for cautious optimism in the light of the extended consultation period agreed at the recent North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh. Asked about her approach to the way in which the proposals are being implemented, Minister Ní Chuilín stated:

"The direct answer to the Member's question is that I was not happy with the consultation. To that end, at the North/South sectoral meeting, Jimmy Deenihan and I announced that there will be a new consultation in November that needs to be fully inclusive. The core-funded Irish language bodies, like any other group in the community, are arguing for services and facilities for the constituents and people that they represent. The way in which the details of those schemes were brought forward almost made it impossible for people to consult. To that end, we have agreed a 12-week consultation starting in November."

And it was good to see Dominic Bradley back in the House and speaking Irish too.

Alba Nuadh

The Herald reports that, for the first time, the bard of Am Mòd Nàiseanta is to be a poet from outwith Scotland. Lewis McKinnon hails from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which has retained a Gaelic-speaking minority against the odds, even preserving some dialectal features now extinct in Scotland itself. Despite the Scottish or Irish origins of most Nova Scotians, it is a sad fact that today considerably more French than Gaelic is spoken in the province — the reason being, to put it bluntly, that French-speakers are more willing to stick up for themselves than the Gaels.

The 2006 Canadian census reports 799 mother-tongue speakers of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, or 0.1% of the population, putting it in thirteenth place, behind such languages as Dutch, Greek and Korean.

Once again, however, a tender Gaelic plant has brought forth flowers, and with nurture will do so again.

On a more strategic note, a paragraph appended to the article reads as follows:

"The statutory development body Bord na Gàidhlig is to launch a campaign to promote Gaelic-medium education (GME) and learning next month to meet the aspiration in the National Gaelic Language Plan of doubling the number of children enrolling in P1 GME."

Good news, but we're not out of the woods yet.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Molloy and the Unnameable

Staying on the subject of the SDLP's Dominic Bradley being banned from speaking in the Assembly for a week for asking a question in Irish without providing an English translation (the strange case of a representative being democratically elected by voters only to be silenced for non-compliance with a non-rule), the Blether Region has discovered that an official Assembly leaflet makes the same unsubstantiated claim about a supposed obligation to translate into English anything said in Irish.

"If called, a Member may speak in the language of his or her choice, but must provide a translation if speaking in a language other than English."

Given that there appears to be no Standing Order to that effect, the question arises of whether this constitutes disinformation. Incidentally, a Liberal-Democrat blog supports the Blether Region's reading of events — and going by its posting of the original Hansard transcript, Dominic Bradley himself imagines that a translation must be provided. There certainly appears to be a good deal of confusion on the question.

Another issue is that, according to the BBC's Mark Devenport, in three years' time or so the Speaker of the Assembly, William Hay, will be stepping down in favour of Sinn Féin's Francie Molloy, who at that time will become the main presence in the Chair — and the person responsible for taking action against recalcitrant Members. Will he continue with the policy of silencing democratically elected representatives who choose to exercise their legal right to speak in a language of their choice? And will he continue to ask Members to provide translations in the absence of any legal basis for the requirement? The Blether Region hopes not.

Goodwill to All Men

The News Letter reports that a motion from Nationalist members of Belfast City Council in favour of Irish-language Christmas banners has been rejected by 25 votes to 20. Although the initial Sinn Féin proposal only concerned Irish, after an SDLP amendment the plan would also have seen Ulster Scots included. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir's take on events is here.

Apart from the fact that, once again, Unionists have shown their antipathy towards Irish to be greater than their love of Ulster Scots, one is struck by the sheer range of instances where a public presence for the Irish language has now been rejected. The tale is also remarkable for the stance of the Alliance Party, which has sided with the Unionists and in the process underlined Northern Ireland's status as "a place apart". It is, after all, hard to imagine fellow liberals in Scotland, with their strong Highland representation (at least at Westminster) taking a similar hardline attitude towards Scottish Gaelic. Neither, of course, would such a denial of difference be imaginable in bilingual Wales.

The Blether Region has previously reported on the Alliance Party's rejection of DRD proposals for bilingual road signs. Afterwards a Holywood Irish-speaker had a meeting with a local Alliance Party politician on the issue that ended with his admitting that his party's reaction was wrong. However, this latest episode, dealing as it does with signs that are not transactional but intentionally symbolic, appears to be a further step away from feeling able to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.

The dilemma for Alliance, as it extends its support from its traditional base of public employees in mixed marriages around the Belfast commuter belt and picks up votes from the floundering UUP, is that its constitutional and cultural centre of gravity shifts in the process. Whether that change precedes or follows on from such increased support is open to speculation, but the end result may well be that the difference between Alliance and the post-St. Andrews DUP, like that between UUP and DUP before it, ends up being one of class rather than substance.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A Face in the Crowd

The Blether Region spotted Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Carál Ní Chuilín at Sunday's annual Cearta agus Ceiliúradh festivities, which took place in St. George's Market in Belfast. The event was intended on the one hand as a demonstration in favour of bringing language legislation in Northern Ireland into line with that in force in Scotland, Wales and the Republic and on the other as a celebration of the strength of Irish at a community level.

Recently Foras na Gaeilge has come in for sustained criticism regarding its plans to end core funding and disqualify NI-only organisations from applying for project-specific funds, with the result that groups such as the cross-community language organisation Ultach Trust and the organisers of Cearta agus Ceiliúradh, Pobal, may soon be forced to shut up shop.

Tomorrow Irish-language organisations will be demonstrating outside the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh, at which Minister Ní Chuilín is expected to rubber-stamp Foras na Gaeilge's proposals. If she does, Sunday's celebrations may turn out to be the last such event organised by Pobal. Quite apart from the fact that the organisation may soon cease to exist, if the plans are allowed to proceed, the Irish language may have very little to celebrate in the North this time next year.

Gagged for Being a Gael

The Belfast Telegraph reports that the SDLP's Dominic Bradley has had Assembly speaking rights withdrawn for a week after he refused an order by Deputy Speaker Roy Beggs to sit down for having the temerity to ask a question in Irish. The Speaker himself, the UUP's William Hay, then "took up the issue and wrote directly to Mr Bradley, informing him he will not be called on to speak again for the rest of this week unless he apologises."

The newspaper incorrectly maintains that Members are required to translate into English anything said in Irish. In fact any translations are offered as a courtesy — with the result that those who exercise their right to use Irish have only half the time available to anglophone Members. Assembly Standing Order 78 states only that "Members may speak in the language of their choice."

The case highlights two issues: the fact that Unionist prejudice towards Irish has been carried over into what is the ostensibly neutral office of the Chair; and the deficient knowledge of Standing Orders exhibited not only by a newspaper but by the Speaker of the House and one of his Deputies. Even if one takes the generous view that Mr. Hay's sanction was as a result of Mr. Bradley's challenge rather than the crime of speaking Irish without offering a translation, the fact remains that it was Mr. Bradley rather than Mr. Beggs who correctly interpreted the Standing Orders of the Assembly.

Back in November 2009, the Blether Region reported on a similar incident, also involving Mr. Bradley. It seems that there has been no progress since. The expense of retaining simultaneous interpreters for the sole benefit of the Chair and Clerk continues, with no account being taken of the translation needs of ordinary Members. Meanwhile, those who speak Irish in the Chamber are summarily gagged in contempt of the legal protections offered by Standing Orders.

The truth is that unwritten conventions simply muddy the waters, breeding ignorance and reinforcing prejudice. Surely it is now time to withdraw this "courtesy" entirely.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

School for Scandal

Although the subject of this blog is language in Northern Ireland rather than Scotland, the Blether Region feels compelled to comment on a story in today's Scotsman that quite outrageously singles out the proposed conversion of a derelict public building in Edinburgh to a Gaelic-medium school for an arbitrary dose of fiscal rectitude (what Northern Ireland's Divine Comedy, in a more romantic vein, once referred to as the "certainty of chance"). This despite the rather obvious fact that "costs soared as a result of vandalism and roof and water damage to the empty building" rather than because of the verb coming first in the sentence.

While historically Gaelic (or Middle Irish, to be precise) was at one time the language of almost everywhere in Scotland, the slowness of the language's decline and the historical enmity between Highland and Lowland have meant that Gaelic-speakers are very often viewed as an ethnic minority — and, in a Lowland context, an immigrant one at that. All of which renders the Scotsman's decision to set up an online poll on whether Holyrood should "stump up the cash for the city's new Gaelic school" a somewhat doubtful enterprise.

By coincidence, the Guardian reported this week that the partner of Liberal-Democrat MP Chris Huhne is to sue the Daily Mail for "inciting users of its website to be abusive" to her.

Is the Blether Region alone in thinking that the Scotsman is similarly intent on whipping up a tide of righteous indignation, this time against an entire community? Lawyers for Chris Huhne's partner have argued that all 58 of the readers' comments appended to the Daily Mail article in question were "abusive in character". Comments on the Scotsman article (after moderation) included "Meheedrum muhoodrum ... Nae garlic speakers in Leith!" and "Taxpayers money shouldnt be used to create separation and division". With dreary predictability, there was also an attempt to link the project to the question of state support for Catholic schools.

Indeed, sometimes Scotland can be a delightful place — but only when compared with Northern Ireland, and even then the charm Vorsprung can vary quite considerably in its degree.

Castle in the Air?

A question scheduled for written answer on 18 October asks the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure "to provide details of the proposed re-classification of £105,000 from resources to the capital budget in the October Monitoring Round for the Ministerial Advisory Group on the development of an Ulster-Scots Academy Strategy."

An interesting parallel occurs to the Blether Region. To quote the veteran Labour politician and ardent opponent of Scottish self-government Tam Dalyell:

"In 1976, when Harold Wilson demitted and Jim Callaghan became prime minister and wanted [the hitherto Eurosceptic] Barbara [Castle] out of his cabinet, it was decided as a sort of consolation prize that she should be the leader of the first Labour delegation to the elected European Parliament," Mr Dalyell said.

"Not within months, but within weeks, she was wanting more powers for the parliament. Why? Because she was bloody well there."

For the redoubtable Mr. Dalyell, this warning from history finds an eery echo in present-day desires for the Scottish Parliament to enjoy an enhanced range of competences (despite the fact that they reflect the overwhelming popular will rather than merely that of those who happen to find themselves elected). Be that as it may, having previously referred to the Ministerial Advisory Group as a "remedial" measure, the Blether Region is struck by this embryonic similarity with the property empire of the Ulster-Scots Agency — to whose failures it was in part conceived as an antidote.