Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

Linguistic Human Rights: Ireland, Israel, and the U.S.

March 24, 2009

In this segment, Professor Thomas Ihde explains how Ireland, America, and Israel have all developed policies regarding language in public education institutions in conjunction with their national immigration policies.

31 Minutes 48 Seconds

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This is Scott Spencer of the CUNY Institute for the Irish American Studies. Lehman College Professor Thomas Ihde is Executive Director of the CUNY Institute for Irish-American Studies and Professor of Irish Language in the Department of Languages & Literature. In this talk, Professor Ihde explains how Ireland, America, and Israel have all developed policies regarding language in public education institutions in conjunction with their national immigration policies. He then describes the 1992 Oslo Accords on the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities, how that set of documents influenced Ireland's policies on language, and Ireland's ongoing encouragement of linguistic diversity.



In what ways can we learn from each other in this process of protecting the language rights of our citizens? So, one of the immediate questions that comes to mind is what is a first language? In Ireland, a large portion of the population speaks the Irish language. And some census put it at a million people. But the majority of those who speak the Irish language speak it as a second language, or some may even say as a foreign language. What's important for us in terms of rights, first and foremost, is to look at the population that has historically has spoken the language. That's the group of people that will have the most rights to be protected. I don't know to what extent we can say that someone who has elected to learn a language then has rights that need to be defended.

So, if I decide today to-- or if I decided 20 years ago to start learning Spanish-- to what extent can I say that my right as a Spanish speaker is being respected? 'Cause Spanish is not my native language, Spanish is not my home language. But obviously, if you were born and raised with Spanish, there will be issues there, and you'll be able to put forth in what ways your rights are not being respected.

I think through much of history-- for example, of Ireland's history, there was more focus placed on learning of the Irish language by scholarly groups, especially if we look at like the 1830s, 1840s, and on, and to a large extent, the native Irish-speaking population was ignored in this process of preserving a classical form of the language.


Today, we see just the opposite. If you've been reading the newspaper over the past ten years, even in The New York Times, we see how the focus is now on the native Irish speakers as opposed to the large population throughout Ireland of those who are learning Irish as a second language. And we see the same thing on the radio, and in through the television. The primary focus is being placed on the native speakers.

I was just observing a Spanish class here at Lehman College, and once again, I noted this emphasis being placed on the dialect of Spanish as being spoken in the Dominican Republic. Lehman College has a large population of speakers who speak that dialect. It makes a lot of sense and is in line with the current practices in language learning.

When I was learning Spanish 20 years ago, at Rutgers University, it would not have been uncommon to have-- or even beyond that, in high school, or seventh or eighth grade-- to have a teacher teaching you the Spanish of Spain. Something that you probably would not use out on the street in your everyday language communicating process.


So, in terms of the first language, parents raised their children in one or more languages, using conscious or unconscious decisions to do so. The word first can be confusing here. Because you can have two, three, four, first languages. These are the languages that we have referred to as the mother tongue, as native language.

I kind of like the use of the word first language, because particularly with the case of Ireland, there is some confusion between the use of native language and first language. And I think currently, the term native language is being used for people who historically in their community spoke Irish as a first language. And that first language can be anyone who's raised with that language. So, for a child that's raised in Dublin with Irish as a revitalized language, we would say that Irish is their first language, but may not be their native language. In the United States, we use this term much more generally, saying your mother tongue, your first language is your native language.

So, let's look at our-- the three examples that I want to-- look into. And we'll start with Ireland. In Ireland, all schools offer the Irish language and the English language as academic subjects, so you're going to have at least 50 minutes or an hour of one of the languages during the day.


Most schools use English as the means of instruction. A smaller percentage of schools use Irish as the means of instruction. In American terms here, I'm referring to Irish Gaelic. And where Irish is used as the language spoken throughout the day in the school. Well, in the historically designated Irish-speaking regions, and also throughout the country in Irish-speaking schools and in some parts-- in some counties-- in Ireland, you may have one or two schools. In other counties, you may have a large number of both primary schools and secondary schools, okay. And we're now seeing the development of university education through the Irish language.

For the most part, immigrants to Ireland are going into the English language system, which is the dominant language used throughout the education system. Of course, if you're an immigrant-- say, you're one of the three Polish-speaking families that have immigrated to Inish Moore on the Aran Islands, they're not going to have very much choice but to go to an Irish-speaking school, 'cause they're on an island.

And-- but even in Connemara, for example, it could be a good distance to the nearest English-speaking school. So, there will be situations where one will be forced in a sense to go to the minority language school. And these schools may or may not have experience of dealing with immigrants who do not speak the national minority language.


In Israel, the state schools, secular schools as it were, are attended by the majority. The language used in those schools is Hebrew. Now, for those in Irish studies, this is a very interesting situation. Because Hebrew is the heritage language. Hebrew is a revived language, and Hebrew also is a language that has very strong ties to the Jewish faith, to the religion.

And so, as a result, Hebrew has a high status over an extended period of time in the culture. Comparing that to Irish in Ireland, Irish never had that sort of status in the religion. So, Irish was not able to enjoy that high status position throughout history. Okay, of course, it was Latin for an extended period of time that had that position.

Also, another big difference in the revival of languages between Israel and Ireland, is you had immigrants from many different countries coming into Israel, in so that Hebrew became the lingua franca, whereas in Ireland, you did not initially, there's been quite a bit of immigration in the past 20 years. But initially, you had the political change of the state, and the same people were there.


And these people had been colonized over an extended period of time. And those who were not historically Irish speakers, the large mass were English speakers. So, it's quite a different thing to look to have three million people change from one language to another, as opposed to the situation of Israel, having people coming from around the globe to this new state and using Hebrew as the lingua franca.

Of course, a very important language that Jewish people already shared whose experience particularly came from Europe would've been Yiddish as well. And continues to have a very strong role here in New York City. So, then you have specific state religious schools, which would focus on Jewish studies, tradition, and observance. Once again, Hebrew would be the language used in those schools. And then, schools serving the Arab population with a special focus on their history, religion, and culture, those would be through the Arabic language.

So, you can see some similarities there to the Irish situation. The major difference is that the heritage language in the case of Ireland is the minority language, and the heritage language in the case of Israel has become the primary national language. Okay, so very different revival situations, and Israel has done that in a much shorter period of time than Ireland has had to try to accomplish that.


Of course, you would also have private schools that could be teaching through English, French, and so on. But as confusing as it may seem, it shows a clear separation-- which is interesting. We do not have that in the United States.

But there is to some extent in Ireland as well, a clear separation between the language communities. I know that the TV station, TG4, is trying to draw in English speakers to watch their Irish language TV. But it'll be interesting to see over time if there are going to be two distinct cultures in Ireland. A English-speaking Irish culture, and an Irish-speaking culture.

So, let's take a look at the United States if we can, and I don't know how this compares to Israel. But in the case of Ireland, schools are run by the government, by the-- as we would call it in the United States-- the federal government. So, that a teacher is an employee of the state of Ireland, similar to the garda, the police officers. And in the United States, our schools are locally run in New York City, but we see that even more so in the suburbs, where small villages and towns are running their own education systems.


So, each town, or village, or city can make their own policy to some extent regarding use of language, foreign languages being taught, and so on. But for the most part in the United States, English is the medium of education in the schools, and it's in a sense the target. So, in some states where bilingual education still exists, the most common form of bilingual education is transitional bilingual education.

The idea is moving the students, most often in Spanish, to English over a period traditionally of three years. So, by the time the student enters the educational system to the point that they go into English-speaking-only classrooms, would take hopefully about three years. Now, that has been changed in many areas more recently with a one-year program, to try to speed that up, and place the child into a mainstream English-only-speaking classroom within the period of one year.

In some states, where there is a desire to maintain both languages, like New Mexico is legally a bilingual state, with Spanish and English. Individual states can declare that. Louisiana is legally a bilingual state, with French and English. And there are many states which have passed English-only laws, which no longer have bilingual education. They've basically declared English as their state language. We do not have a nationally declared language in the United States.


So, developmental bilingual education is where you want the child to continue to-- to develop the two languages, and dual language bilingual education, of which we have several schools here in New York City, is where the children have half the day in one language, and half the day in the other language, switching the subject, so that they develop competency in math, for example, both in Spanish and English, or in Chinese and in English.

And also it's most desirable that half of the students in the class be native speakers of Spanish, and half of the students in the class be native speakers of English, so that the children are sharing their gifts and talents with each other in the process.

So, when we look at these three countries, we see that the dominant language is the primary language of instruction. In Ireland and Israel, separate schools provide instruction in the different languages. In the United States, we're trying to educate all the students in English. And we're using, in some states, a form of bilingual education. In other states, an intensive English as a second language program to try to bring all of the students into an educational system using English. And as I mentioned earlier, it's interesting, the status of Hebrew in Israel presently, as compared to the reality of Irish in Ireland at present.


Now, what I'd like to do is talk a little bit about some of the changes that have happened in Ireland that I referred to at the beginning of the talk in the past 20 years. And we've received a little bit of information about what's going on with language rights in Ireland through The New York Times and other mainstream media sources.

For example, some of you may have heard of the whole discussion about the change of the name Dingle in Ireland. There were two or three articles in The New York Times about how the store owners-- the merchants-- in Dingle did not want the name of their town to be named officially by its Irish version. And they felt that that name, Dingle, had become like a trademark for them. And even though their village was an Irish-speaking village, and to a certain extent, to protect the rights of the individuals in that village, that the official name of the town should be in the native language of the people.

The merchants were saying, yes, but we have businesses that we have built up over many years. And we would like to continue to use that name of the town as the official name. But how does this figure into a general movement in Ireland?


And it's interesting to see the background as to where some of this is coming from. The organization for security and cooperation in Europe recognized that the violation of linguistic rights of national minorities was a primary source of civil conflict. And we see this in the Oslo Recommendations of 1998.

If you look at the changes that have taken place in Ireland in the past ten years in terms of linguistic rights, they follow many of the recommendations that were set forth. Where did these come about? Many of the atrocities that we have heard of in Eastern Europe with minority language-speaking populations have been linked to the violation of the right to speak one's language.

And so, many of these recommendations address those rights. But we see that these same sort of practices are happening now in Ireland. And these individuals might be saying, "Well, why is Minister Ó Cuív"-- the minister who is responsible for Irish-speaking territory affairs-- "why is he coming up with this sort of change all of a sudden?"


No. This is following a larger movement throughout Europe in protecting linguistic rights. One of the recommendations that came out of Oslo in 1998 was minorities-- this term that we'll use here, national linguistic minorities-- should be able to use their name in their native language. And any groups that they're affiliated with, associations, sports clubs, religious organizations, they should be able to use as the official name the minority language name to that group. This has not been an issue for us in the United States.

But it has definitely been an issue in Ireland when people try to say, "Well, what exactly would your name be in English?" To the point where someone might be concerned with the name that you provide a police office, for example, when you're asked for identification. The name that you sign on a check. Individuals being-- trying to translate in the media the name of your organization, and not just accepting the name that you as a group put forth.

Public signage. This is what I was just referring to the situation in Dingle. Now, what we have, is a-- a movement not only to have bilingual signs in the Irish-speaking regions, but to have monolingual signs. To do away with, to a certain extent, the colonial name that was placed on these villages, and to use only the local native name of the villages.


This is continuing to cause a bit of difficulty. I know that we take CUNY students to An Cheathrú Rua to study in the summer. And we've also taken them in the winter. And I provided a map for the students on our website of the village of Ancahuruah in Irish, and then also, if they clicked on that, they'd be able to get a map in the English language. And I found that some people through the internet-- and I shouldn't be surprised-- have taken my English language map and put it up on the map for the use of their business or what have you.

So, there's always this understanding that outsiders will prefer to use English, the international language. And that's true to a certain extent. But that should not mean that we should deny or cannot use the local language version of the name. Okay, use of the language in personal and group religious practices, this has been a tradition in Ireland, and so is not as much of an issue. But, remember, that these are the recommendations that were made throughout Europe.

Where national funds are spent on the majority language population activities, they must also be spent in a non-discriminatory basis among national linguistic minorities. We have seen a wide range of applications for the use of tax dollars now in Ireland to support minority language or Irish language activities. And throughout both north and south, we see these funds being applied to also for other linguistic communities that are found in Ireland on the island.


Remember before, also, I said that there's quite a bit of immigration to Ireland going on. I think our understanding here is that national linguistic minorities are populations that for a period of time had set their roots on the island. Much of this will seem very familiar to those of you who have looked at the case of Canada and language rights in Canada.

And we would probably think in Canada, of the English-speaking population, the French speaking population, and the Inuit-speaking population. Now, of course, you could talk about Vietnamese immigrants, too. You can talk about Scottish Gaelic-speaking immigrants, and they do have a number of rights in specific areas in Canada. But there is a sense that nationally, there are three language groups in Canada whose rights need to be protected throughout the country. And this is the same sort of thing that we're talking about here.

But in Ulster, you would have other language communities. You would have Scots and Scottish Gaelic. And so, any of the different language communities that would be associated with the population in northern Ireland also are applying for these funds through-- through Forest N'Golga. Media. Once again, this is not for Ireland. This is for Europe. If you're going to have TV stations using tax dollars in English, you're going to need to provide those services in Irish.


We now have an Irish language TV station ten years down the road. But the media's independent nature should be safeguarded, and we do see that TG4 has a quite a bit of independence, specifically from RTE. And economic concerns of the native language minority community has the right to use-- in economic concerns, the right to use-- exclusive use of its language.

This is very different. What's being recommended in this particular item is very different from what happens in Canada. Because this is saying that the native linguistic minority community can decide if they want to use their language or not in economic concerns. And often, the Irish language is not being used-- internet websites, for example-- for specific businesses and transactions, billboard signs, and so on. So, as I referred to earlier, when you go through the Irish-speaking regions, you will see that government signs, like yield, like the name of a town, and so on, are being presented in Irish only. You will also see that businesses, a restaurant sign or a hotel sign, may be in English primarily. So, this is an option. In Canada, it's not an option. Businesses are required to use French in Quebec as the primary language on their sign if they're advertising their business.

Public documents should be available in the native language of the population. This already existed to a large extent for the past-- since the '30s in Ireland. But now, it has expanded to a greater range of public documents. And with the Irish language as one of the official languages of the European community, this extends also to Brussels, Straussenberg, and so on, in providing those documents.


The ability to use the language with public officials and further, with elected officials, [is] questionable at time. These are the goals. They were not trying to be too idealistic. But they're saying, basically, if you're an elected official, or a government official, that is, working in an Irish-speaking community, you should be able to use those languages.

Also note, that with public medicine-- doctors, dentists, pediatricians, and so on are working for the government. And so therefore, they should be able to provide their services in the language of the local population. Often, it doesn't happen.

The appointment of an ombudsperson, we see that in Ireland. And-- and furthermore, with the language act. And the rights to use language extending to the courts and to the prisons. So, I think it's interesting to look at the Oslo recommendations and to see that a lot of the changes that have come about in Ireland have not just come about in a vacuum. It's not just Ireland looking at ways to resolve their problems, but rather this is a greater, more broad attempt throughout Europe to deal with linguistic diversity in a positive way. And to respect this language right of individuals.


Do we see a lot of this happening in the United States? No. Is there a public outcry that this isn't happening? No. The American system-- in very much along the lines of a economy-driven system-- is using the language to the extent that they feel is needed.

So, for example, in television, we find Spanish is well represented, as are a number of other languages. Advertising on these stations is very strong. So is the amount of money available to them in the process of doing this. Do we have an ombudsperson protecting the rights of specific languages in the United States? No. Do we have an academy, like you might have with French or Spanish, protecting American English in its purity? No.

And I guess one of the big areas where we look at linguistic rights in the United States is in terms of education. 'Cause that is where major decisions are being made. Children are acquiring language at a young age. And so, education is having an important effect on those children. But in many other areas, for example, we all-- many of us-- voted recently. You may have noticed that signs were up in a variety of languages. In Woodlawn, I saw signs in Chinese and Spanish outside of the public school there.


So, in the United States, we respond as needed to a certain extent. But there isn't a sense in the United States that even as colonial languages-- English, Spanish, and French-- are protected as sort of heritage languages in the United States. Despite whatever languages come and go, there's a sense that-- it's interesting-- that we haven't divided the country up into like three regions, and said Spanish is protected out in the west, French is protected in the Mississippi region, and English is protected in the New England states. And throughout the country Native American languages are protected by specific language groups and in specific states.

There really hasn't been any sort of effort to do this in the country, and people's memory seems to be very short. So, for example, people do not remember when signs were in railroad stations in the new-- greater New York area in German, because a large German-speaking population was present.

Many Anglos-- or English speakers only-- see the signs in Spanish and say, "Why, all of a sudden all these signs in Spanish." And so, there isn't-- we don't have a sense of generation after generation, kind of like a language plan in the United States. And I'm not saying that there should be one. But it's just a very different system than what we can see when we look at other countries.



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