You’ve visited, researched your family history, watched Irish movies and drank more pints of Guinness than you can count. But now you’re ready to really take the plunge in terms of exploring your Irish heritage. You’re ready to learn how to speak the Irish language! But where do you start?
Fortunately, there are many options for learning how to speak Irish, no matter how deep or shallow you want to explore. Just want to learn conversational Irish, so you can carry on a brief chat with someone on your upcoming visit to Ireland? Or would you rather learn as much as you can with the ultimate goal of becoming fluent? That’s possible, too. There are options in both online and in-person classes for anyone who wants to speak the language.
What a language it is too! Mellifluous, like the sound of music, the sound of someone speaking the Irish language is truly a beautiful thing to behold. Just think what pride it will give you to be able to speak Irish yourself.
When you’re ready to try out your new speaking skills, we have some suggestions for the best places in Ireland to visit to find people who speak the language on a daily basis and who would love to help you practice their tongue and learn how to become a true conversationalist.
WHAT IS THE IRISH LANGUAGE? IS IT THE SAME AS GAELIC?
Known in its own language as Gaeilge, Irish is a member of the Goidelic subfamily of the Celtic language group. Its closest relatives are Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Sometimes, especially in America, the language is known as Gaelic, or even Irish Gaelic. But for the most part and in most places, including in Ireland, the language is simply called Irish.
Although Irish isn’t the most widely spoken language in Ireland or Northern Ireland, it is without dispute a living tongue. After all, it’s officially classified as the national and first language of Ireland. At least 1.9 million in Ireland and Northern Ireland can speak at least some Irish. And about 80,000 continue to use Irish as their first language at home and at work.
WHO SPEAKS IRISH?
Why is Irish still spoken, when English is so prevalent throughout the British Isles and even in Ireland itself? After all, for decades, the English forbade Irish be spoken in Ireland’s schools and banned public speaking of it, to the point that the language nearly died out.
One big reason is that Irish is a required class that all schoolchildren must take in the Republic of Ireland. That’s in part thanks to the Gaelic Revival that took place in the late 19th century. That has meant that almost any Irish native you meet is going to have at least a working knowledge of Irish, even if they still use English as their primary means of discourse.
Groups like An Cumann Gaelach (in English, the Irish Language Society), Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) and Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Language Week), promoters of their namesake two-week Irish language festival held every March, have all kept the flame alive through the decades.
There are other reasons that Irish persists. Anyone who applies to become a teacher in a school in the Republic of Ireland must pass an examination demonstrating a level of fluency and comprehensive in Irish.
Many government functions and speeches are conducted in Irish (although most government departments use English as their primary language). Speeches are delivered in Irish by high-ranking elected officials. Former Prime Minister Enda Kenny was known for speaking Irish in official settings, sometimes even refusing to switch over to English.
Finally, there are countless place names, road and street signs, and people who formally adopted Irish names for themselves and their locations. The Irish prime minister, for example, is known countrywide as the Taoiseach. The Irish parliament is known as the Oireachtas Éireann. There are television networks, like Teilifís na Gaeilge (TG4) that broadcast all of their programming in Irish, and RTE One, the Irish public broadcaster, who has some programs in Irish. In terms of radio, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta broadcasts nearly all of its programs in Irish.
And let’s not forget about the musical groups that have recorded songs in the Irish language. Enya, Gemma Hayes and the Hothouse Flowers have also recorded and released Irish-language songs.
HOW DO I LEARN IRISH?
Perhaps the quickest and easiest way is to download to your smartphone the Duolingo app. This app, which also teaches several other languages like Spanish, Hebrew and Indonesian, is extremely simple to use and will get you speaking at least a few words of Irish in no time. By only putting in a few minutes a day (Duolingo recommends about 30 minutes per day to make a real impression), you can make progress like you never thought possible.
Duolingo works on the concept of repetition and hearing yourself speak. It’s not all reading and memorizing. You will hear a voice speaking real Irish and your task is to repeat the phrases you have heard. Later, you will be asked to say back phrases. It’s really an ingenious way to teach a language.
If you want even deeper studies, there are more classes and training to consider. Rosetta Stone has taught millions of people how to speak a foreign language and, like Duolingo, it’s based on the concepts of hearing yourself speak the language. Unlike Duolingo, Rosetta Stone does require payments. But Rosetta Stone is perhaps one of the world’s foremost language-learning courses and provides a near-guarantee that its students who stick with their program will definitely pick up at least some measure of fluency.
The Irish language-learning program called Buntús Cainte, designed in the 1960s is still in use as a way to teach English speakers Irish. It’s available in both book and digital audio formats.
Think you learn better when in a class setting with other people? There are options for these types of learners also. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Let’s Learn Irish program is taught in both evening sessions and 1-day intensive classes. Contact them at letslearnirish.com for details.
For individualized tutoring, there are many Irish speakers across America who specialize in teaching Irish. Look online for directories of these teachers, such as the one at Daltai na Gaeilge.
Keep in mind that Irish, while technically part of the same language family as English (the Indo-European family), there is virtually zero mutual intelligibility between English and Irish. In fact, not only is all of the vocabulary different, the sounds of the words different, and the accents completely distinct, Irish doesn’t even use the same grammar as English. Most sentences are written and said in a verb-subject-object order. Irish makes use of gender-based words; adjectives come after a noun, instead of before it; prepositions work in completely different ways; and even numbers are not the same.
While the previously mentioned classes are all fantastic courses and will almost certainly get you speaking Irish, there’s no substitute for hearing Irish speakers who use the language on a daily basis. After all, if you are a native English speaker, Irish is so different from your native tongue that it will help tremendously to hear people use Irish in daily conversation to get the hang of it.
So where’s the best place to hear Irish spoken in daily life? Dublin may not your best option. But head westward, to the Atlantic coast, to the separated regions of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. Here, you will find towns and villages where Irish is spoken by nearly everyone. Some of these towns, such as Gweedore (in Irish, Gaoth Dobhair) in County Donegal and Dingle (Daingean Uí Chúis) in County Kerry, have residents who only speak Irish and nothing else. A guided tour of the Gaeltacht region might be your best bet. Local chambers of commerce and visitors’ departments can provide directories of package-tour operators. You can even find guided tours that specifically give you a taste of the Irish language and Irish music and culture as well.
Once you feel like you have picked up some semblance of proficiency in Irish, or even if you are still learning but want to show off your knowledge of some Irish words, there are plenty of items available on ShamrockGift.com to let the world know your connection to the Irish language. A Claddagh Cead Mile Failte door plaque, made of pewter and black wood, will let any guests know you are someone with the Irish language on their side. Cead Mile Failte means “a hundred thousand welcomes in Irish.
So there you have it. The beginner’s guide to learning Irish and making the Irish language a true part of your life and a way to really help you embrace your Irish heritage. Dia duit!