Last year my partner and I decided to send our three-year-old son to Naíscoil Dhoire, an Irish-medium nursery school based in the Shantallow area of Derry.
We took this decision to give us a better insight into bilingualism through an Irish-medium education and to explore it as an option for our son’s education. After nursery, we could always fall back and send him to the local English speaking school had things not worked out.
Both of us had little Irish proficiency at the beginning of the academic year. I had learned some Irish at school and from my Dad who taught us how to count, say goodnight, hello and say thank you in our native tongue. My partner now attends weekly Irish lessons and our proficiency has improved as we engage with our son’s learning.
As the academic year went on the Irish Language Act hit the headlines. Arlene Foster’s crocodile remark coupled with Paul Givan’s withdrawal of £50,000 of funding from an Irish-language bursary scheme made many parents like ourselves feel anxious about a decision to fully commit to the Irish-medium.
With that said, the blatant and relentless nature of Givan’s sharp decision was not at all surprising nor was his decision to overturn it as political pressure mounted.
However, the knowledge that ministers hostile to the Irish language could pull the plug on funding when it is politically expedient is somewhat unnerving for parents.
The anxiety felt by fellow parents, at that time, only demonstrates the importance of achieving statutory protection for our native language via an Irish Language Act in the North.
Foster’s remarks and Givan’s actions may not have been aimed and fired directly at parents but the implications indirectly affected confidence in the future of Irish-medium education.
However, the high energy Acht na Gaeilge and An Dream Dearg campaigns alongside the recent assembly election inspired parents and gave them some hope that the Irish Language Act issue is close to being resolved.
In the end and despite the issues, we decided to educate our son through the Irish Medium. He will start primary one in September 2017 at Bunscoil Cholmcille.
We made this decision based on the massive benefits to our son’s development, which are notable. The teaching standard was much higher than we expected and the school has a warming community feel.
Moreover, not only can he speak in two languages at the age of four, research into bilingualism by Queens University shows that bilingual primary school children outperform their English-only counterparts.
As a result, children who are bilingual are likely to sit Irish a GCSE and A-Levels a year or two earlier. This gives them more time to focus on other subjects as they progress.
Most universities require three A-levels as an entry requirement. This means that a bilingual child could have the prospect of a lightened workload as they work towards completing their final school year before going on to university.
There is no doubt that uncertainty regarding the legal position of the Irish language is a factor for parents to consider when deciding to send their children to Irish schools. Some parents are put off by this.
In 2017 an Irish Language Act has yet to be achieved despite it being signed up to by the DUP as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
With Brexit looming the protection and funding that flow’s from the EU will add extra pressures to the Irish-medium.
Nevertheless, the number of applicants for both nursery and primary one at our local Irish-medium school are up for the first time in years. The class numbers will be highest for a long time.
There is no doubt that the recent media attention and actions by some politicians have rejuvenated the Irish language cause in the North.
It’s not about road signs or the language used in courtrooms, it’s about certainty and certainty cost very little.
It’s about knowing that the Irish culture and language is legally secure going forward. It is also about being safe in the knowledge that our children’s education through the Irish-medium, is a safe bet.
The only thing that can achieve this is legislation. In weighing up what’s best for our children the legal status of our indigenous language should not be a factor.
As demands for an Irish Language Act grow, so too does the interest in bilingual education. I have no doubt that the promulgation of an Irish Language Act in the North will result in a sharp rise in the number of parents applying to send their children to Irish-medium schools.
Hopefully, certainty and legal protection for the Irish language will be high up on the agenda in ongoing negotiations between the main parties. Parents of Irish-medium children are waiting patiently on the outcome.
One last push could get this over the line, it would be a shame to stop now.
Ciaran Boyle Derry