Alt ón Irish Independent
The new Gaeilgeoiri
Friday February 4th 2005
(from Hawaii, Ukraine and Bangladesh)
Heard the one about the Chinese gaeilgeoir?
His name was Yu Ming, a teenager from a small Chinese town who dreamt of one day living in Ireland. After some initial research on the country he wanted to call home, he discovered that its official tongue was Irish.
Conscientiously, Yu began studying the language and achieved fluency by the time his flight touched down in Dublin some months later. Needless to say, he was perplexed after leaving the airport when no one he spoke to understood him, just as he failed to understand what they were saying.
By now, you might have guessed that the story is a fictional one, from the new short film Yu Ming is Ainm Dom, whose director Daniel O'Hara explains his inspiration tonight on TG4's An Tuath Nua.
But even so, those of us with barely a 'cupla focail' might be justifiably embarrassed by the growing number of non-nationals who are now learning Irish.
One example are the students at a special weekly beginners' class on Dublin's North Circular Road for Irish language enthusiasts who have come here from abroad.
Organised by the Irish language group An tIonad Buail Isteach ('The Drop-in Centre') lessons take place in a room rented from Spirasi, a voluntary organisation that works with refugees and asylum seekers.
It's a class where the roll-call of participants reads like a list of delegates at a UN Security Council meeting. Past and present students have included natives of Iraq, Nigeria, Cuba, Canada, the US and a range of western and eastern European countries.
On one recent Wednesday night alone, the class included Lana Ilyin from the Ukraine, Raj Lutful Khan from Bangladesh, Julie Panko from Hawaii and Marie Plisnier from Belgium.
And just in case that isn't cosmopolitan enough, their teacher is an Irish-American - Trinity College linguistics student Colleen Dollard.
The reasons given by the classmates for taking up Irish are many and varied.
Lana, who already speaks English, German and her native Ukrainian, says that she became interested in Irish after moving here five years ago, and also happens to be a fan of RTE's Irish-speaking star Hector O hEochagain.
More importantly, her son Daniel (4) will start school next year and she plans to be able to help him.
Like her classmates, she was surprised at not hearing Irish being spoken on the streets: "I sometimes go home to the Ukraine and they say, well you must know Irish by now as well as English!"
Marie, a 29-year-old student of iron-age archaeology, confesses to having had a "bee in my bonnet" about coming to live in Ireland since she first began studying archaeology in Belgium. "I decided to begin learning Irish because I am here for good," says Marie, who has been learning Irish for more than six months. "I have decided to come to Ireland and to make my life here. Everybody told me that it was the maddest language to learn, and I would not say that it's a piece of cake. We have a class once a week on Wednesday and on Thursday everything is fresh in your mind but it's hard to find people to talk to.
"It's the mother tongue of a friend and I try to practise it every so often with her. I also go to the Cafe Tri (a Dublin Irish language cafe). And last year every so often I would try to watch TG4 to try to get the language to my ear."
For Marie, the reaction of some Irish people to her decision to begin learning their neglected native tongue was an amusing one. "They told me that I was probably going to marry a farmer in Leitrim and raise sheep!" she laughs.
Meanwhile, her classmate Raj is a man on a mission. A speaker of half a dozen languages from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the 22-year-old visual artist and part-time courier was inspired to travel by his family and his love of languages.
"Ireland was the first country that I came across where the people did not speak their own language and I realised that I should do something here," he says.
With all the zeal of convert, he is studying the history of Irish as well as the language itself in order to help wake up Irish people to the joys of their native tongue.
Somewhere along the way, he also plans to create the first Irish-Bangladeshi textbook, and eventually set up an Irish cultural centre in Bangladesh when his travels bring him home.
As for the reasons behind her interest in Irish, Hawaiian Julie Panko refers to herself jokingly as the 'Yank stereotype' with a great-great grandmother from Ireland.
"When I came here to study at UCD I decided that it was something that I wanted to do," she says. "I had been looking at it one and off for a couple of years and found out about this class after going to the Ilac library.
"You could say I have gone up 10,000 points in my grandmothers' estimation for being the one grandchild who would come to Ireland and learn Irish."
She also admits that knowing a few words 'as gaeilge' has come in handy abroad when she and her Irish boyfriend wanted to talk to each other but without being understood by those around them.
Like Raj, she also believes the class can set a positive example for Irish people who have allowed their knowledge of the language to lapse since leaving school.
"I wouldn't want to criticise the Irish education system but this class is a perfect example of the good approach to learning it. And it must be encouraging for the Irish. If the yanks and the Ukrainians and others are coming here to learn it then it can't be too difficult,"
Refreshingly, Colleen's teaching methods are a far cry from the turgid texts endured by past generations of Irish schoolchildren.
And, unlike the often po-faced, humourless approach inflicted on the same schoolchildren by some teachers, laughter and fun appear to be mandatory features of the class.
A typical example is her use of the chorus from the children's tune known as 'The Do-Run-Run Song' to teach the Irish-language propositions of 'liom, leat, leis, lei, linn, libh and leo'.
For Colleen, a native of Washington DC who began learning Irish in 1993 and is now fluent, teaching the language to others has become something of a vocation.
"I think it's fascinating teaching people. When I began learning it myself I got so emotionally invested in it, but I never thought that I would be teaching Irish."
Ultimately, she believes the language is alive and well if the numbers of people from both Ireland and abroad who are learning and speaking it are anything to go by.
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