Irish is considered to be the first uttered literary language of Europe. The ancient Gaeilge of Ireland served as the seed language for Scottish Gaelic and Manx, just as the venerable Irish gene pool originally spread north and east to Scotland, to the west of England, and beyond. There are considerable advantages to speaking Gaeilge for the transmission and preservation of the richness and traditions of Irish culture. This is especially relevant for an indigenous people who have experienced a deliberate and protracted eradication of their language and way of life by conquerors. While the history of Ireland in the last several hundred years speaks heavily of oppression and conflict, ancient Irish culture draws on uniqueness and attainments which as of yet are not widely appreciated.
That speaking more than one language is beneficial is now undisputed. The linguistic, neurological and psychological advantages of being fluent in two languages have been documented by more than 150 studies. They include increased neuroplasticity, or flexibility of brain function, heightened creative thinking, augmented self-esteem and elevated emotional satisfaction due to increased connectedness to heritage and extended family. The cognitive advantages have shown up as early as seven months in infants who have better adjustment to changes in their environment. Among the key areas where bilingualists outperform mono language speakers is communication sensitivity, being more aware of nuance in communication; and field sensitivity, the ability to get the “big picture” and the “bottom line” more readily. Academic achievement is positively influenced by all of these factors. The benefits of bilingualism are not just for those raised in a two language environment, they are also seen in those who learn their second language later on in life. A brain exposed to multiple languages learns choice. Neurological studies have demonstrated that ability to speak more than one language delays the onset of dementia by four to five years, and allows the brain of the bilingual thinker to function at a higher level with greater damage compared to a monolinguist. The four to five year delay in the onset of dementia is seen across multiple types: vascular (diminished blood supply to the brain due to stroke, atherosclerosis or arrhythmia), Alzheimer’s, and others.
While the advantages of being able to speak or read more than one language are clear, what might be the benefits if one of those languages is Gaelige? New research is documenting exciting cognitive gains for Irish speakers and bilingual students who speak the Gaeilge. These advantages are both anatomical, affecting brain architecture; and physiological, affecting how the brain processes information. There are benefits to those who speak Irish compared to English, the focus of my next article, and to those who speak both Irish and English.
Groundbreaking research conducted at Queen’s University School of Psychology in Belfast in 2012 demonstrated significant advantages for students receiving education at Irish-medium schools. This was the first study of its kind to examine the intellectual functioning of these children and looked at their short term memory as well as “working memory” performance. These reasoning processes are central to all learning tasks and include mathematics, reading, and analytical skills. The 8 – 10 year old kids who were being educated in the Irish- medium schools (Irish immersion, learning their subjects in Irish) outperformed 8 – 10 year old kids from English-only schools in Northern Ireland. And their higher performance was seen especially in mathematics, a crucial subject correlated with success in our high tech world. The finding that really grabbed the researchers’ attention was that 8 year old Irish-medium educated children were on a par with, and in several areas actually exceeded, the 10 year old English-only children. This trail-blazing research served to support earlier studies showing that Irish-medium kids at the Primary 7 level showed superior skills in mathematics and English for the consecutive years 2005 to 2008. The Trust for Irish-medium Education (Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta) is justifiably proud of their pupils’ consistent achievement higher than the Northern Ireland average.
Irish-medium schools not only serve as a mechanism for revival of the indigenous language of Ireland and support for its culture, but also demonstrate the clear advantages of the advantages of bilingualism in altering deep reasoning processes of the brain. Overall, the performance of Irish-medium children is considered to be so compelling that it is now thought that children throughout all of Ireland may be best served by learning their subjects in Irish along with English in school. According one of the world’s most prominent authorities on bilingualism, Professor Colin Baker of Bangor University in Wales, the benefits of IM education in Ireland are so great that any child not being so educated may be being cognitively and academically disadvantaged.
The successes of Irish-medium education raises the question of increased student achievement due to challenging the brain by thinking in two languages, and benefits for cognitive processing when one of those language is Gaeilge. In other words, are the superior skills that the Irish-medium kids show due to their bilingualism only, or are there specific and unique advantages to speaking the Irish language in particular? It turns out that the Gaeilge has unique structures and qualities that linguists believe confer significant intellectual and academic advantages. These benefits for the speaker of Gaeilge go beyond its SVO (subject/verb/object) language classification and will be explored subsequently, along with a look at “Hiberno-English,” the way that English is spoken by native Irish.
The Straitéis 20 Bliain – 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030 in the Republic of Ireland, published in 2009, seeks to implement goals of providing a partial immersion environment for all children in primary schools in the country, and the teaching of mathematics and science classes in Irish. If implemented successfully, this would be a potent tool for the revitalization of the Gaeilge as well as an effective means by which to insure greater academic success, 21st century mathematics and technological skills, and superior cognitive abilities for Irish youth.
Dr. Jeanne D’Brant, Associate Professor of Biology & Allied Health, State University of NY