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A useless book

I’ve seen a lot of useless books in my life. I’ve even read a few. But I’m sad to report that this one trumps anything I’ve seen before.

#1 Irish Phrasebook

Irish is the native tongue of only a small minority here, but it is a compulsory subject right through primary and secondary school, so after 14 years of exposure, all Irish people will have a certain familiarity with it, although most will leave school unable to hold a simple conversation. Perhaps in a later post I will address the reasons for that.

#2 Out and about

But even if only a small proportion of people have Irish as their mother tongue, what is so useless about this book? Well, let's ask ourselves, what is the purpose of a phrase book? It is not a grammar, nor does it contain any structured approach to actually learning the language in question. It is simply intended as a practical tool to aid communication between people who have no language in common.

#3 Destined for disappointment

How does this book not fit that purpose? Quite simply, there are no speakers of Irish who are not already fluent in English. So if an English-speaker starts struggling to get their tongue around phrases in Irish, their interlocutor may indulge them for a minute, but naturally, the conversation will soon switch to the language both are more comfortable in: English. This book is about as useful as a Latin phrasebook. Or perhaps not even, because someone buying this book may be under the illusion that it will actually be possible to use it in parts of Ireland. They will, sadly, be destined for disappointment.

What do you think?

16 points


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  1. My husband is interested in learning both Scots & Irish Gaelic. He watches a lot of videos on YouTube that are aimed at teaching these languages. They also seem to take the phrasebook type approach, without necessarily teaching the rudiments of spelling and pronunciation, or grammar.

    I’ve seen other language learning programs that take a similar approach. They claim it’s effective. But I have my doubts! I don’t think I could learn this way. And as you say, it’s not as if I’d encounter someone who spoke only Irish and couldn’t understand me.

    • And that makes learning such a language particularly challenging! I used to send my kids to a Gaeltacht college every summer (5 weeks intensive Irish course, where no English was tolerated), and situated in Irish-speaking areas. But even there, if they went to the shop and tried to speak Irish with the person behind the counter, they were usually responded to in English 🙁
      This kind of approach may suit some people, but I am of an analytical frame of mind and need to understand what I am saying and why. As for what your husband wants, the two languages are very similar, but I think it’s important to concentrate on one, so as not to confuse oneself. Funny, I always thought you were a guy – something to do with sailors usually being male 😀

  2. I’ve seen a lot of books like this, and classes for Spanish. The students will leave thinking they can go to Mexico and talk to them in Spanish. But not all the people in Mexico speak Spanish, as you get farther north towards our border they speak a mixture of English and Spanish.

  3. So is Irish less frequently used than Welsh is in Wales? There are certainly parts of Wales where the local people speak Welsh as their usual language, as well as being completely fluent in English. Scots Gaelic has a similar status in a much smaller area of Scotland, namely the Western Isles. So are there not parts of Ireland where Irish has a similar status?

    • It’s complicated (I almost wrote ‘complected’ 😉 ), John. There are three areas (parts of Donegal, Kerry and Connemara) where Irish is the mother tongue of some tens of thousands, but its social status is generally low, especially among youth. The state, through its unsubtle support of the language, has done more harm than good, raising generations of English speakers to have a stubborn resentment of the language, born of years of having it stuffed down their throat. I consider myself quite gifted at language learning, yet I can’t hold even a simple conversation in Irish. I was never taught the language in any analytical way, and that’s the only way I know to approach a language. Even talking about it, I can feel my hackles starting to rise!

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