DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Life

How tourism can bring endangered languages back from the brink

When languages are lost, swathes of history, culture and knowledge vanish with them. Tourism can counter that

People sitting in a classroom listening to musicians

Students at Oideas Gael are treated to an evening of traditional song as part of the school’s intensive Irish language course. Image: Supplied

It’s July and I’m singing with strangers. I can’t speak the language. I can, at least, recognise some of the voices. The Bostonian who flew thousands of miles to be here, voice husky from cigarette smoke. The German lady who fell in love with Ireland through its literature. The locals who have known this song since their youth. Together, they breathe new life not only into this ancient folk song, but also into a language facing disappearance – Irish, one of many minority languages under threat.

This is a normal evening at Oideas Gael, a cultural centre in Donegal, Ireland. Here, people come from around the world for intensive courses in the Irish language. By day they attend study sessions with expert tutors, in classes sorted by ability. By night students converge for cultural sessions, from live fiddle performances to film screenings. Tonight, the students sing ancient Irish folk songs, testing not only their pronunciation but the bonds they’ve forged in Oideas Gael’s classrooms. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Báidín Fheilimí, a song about a fisherman’s boat, is a fitting choice for two reasons. The first is its theme: Oideas Gael overlooks a quiet sandy beach, and the song rocks and sways like the ocean. The second is that the song is often taught to children in Irish schools. For some attendees, Báidín Fheilimí evokes memories of blackboard and chalk, rekindling their childhood enthusiasm. For others, this is their first taste of traditional song – one which the organisers hope will inspire lifelong passion.

When the song ends, the students disperse into the night. They walk to Glencolumbkille, a quiet, hilly village with two pubs and two churches. They return to holiday homes and hotel rooms, resting before tomorrow’s early start. Across the way, on the opposite cliff, an old watchtower overlooks the centre and the sea.

According to the 2022 Irish Census, 1,873,997 people in Ireland can speak Irish. Just 71,968 of them speak it daily outside of the education system – 2% fewer than the 2016 census. However, the overall number of people indicating an ability to speak Irish was up 6% over the same period.

Linguists have stated that half of the world’s languages could disappear by 2100, with Irish categorised as ‘definitely endangered’ by Unesco. When languages are lost, swathes of history, culture and knowledge vanish with them. Across the globe, linguists and locals collaborate to save languages through educational programmes, written records, and a passing down of language from generation to generation.

The next morning, these apocalyptic visions are far from the minds of Oideas Gael’s students. One describes it as a holiday hotspot, returning each year to meet new people and have fun. Others share the sentiment, cherishing Glencolumbkille’s peaty mountain trails and chippy van. 

Though some have familial links to Irish – one mother is learning so she can speak with her children who attend an Irish-language school – many have no such ties. Those with no Irish ancestry were drawn here by their love of Irish letters and lyrics. One student from Dublin summarises it aptly: “We don’t think of this as saving a dying language. We’re just here for the craic, like.”

Ronan O Dochartaigh, the centre’s language director, shares this vision. “People do work hard in our classrooms, but we want them to have fun. We want them to go home associating the language with good times and positive feelings,” he says. “When people leave, we often point them to groups in their areas, so they can continue speaking Irish.”

He mentions how difficult it can be to practise speaking Irish, especially for international students. Over the course of a week, learners create communities that make practice easier. The centre hopes these communities will extend beyond its walls, carried across the sea and into online meet-ups. Though these are small groups, they can blossom into scattered enclaves of Irish culture. 

Many of the centre’s students wince when asked about mandatory Irish study in school. They remember pressure, tedium and hefty piles of homework. Now, though, the language is a valued part of their hobbies, personal lives and holiday plans. At Oideas Gael, tourism becomes part of a national effort to conserve the past while making Irish appealing to the modern world.

Ronan describes a “gradual, positive shift” in attitudes towards Irish, in part thanks to the centre’s work. But could other endangered languages benefit from similar programmes? Historically, tourism has done more to undermine than protect Indigenous cultures. In 2022, workers at a luxury hotel in Tulum, Mexico, protested when their bosses banned them from speaking Mayan. Elsewhere, hotels have banned staff from speaking Welsh and Tibetan. The relationship between tourism and minority languages is still developing, and it isn’t always as positive as at Oideas Gael.

We sing Báidín Fheilimí again on the final evening of the week. The singers are more confident and emotional after a week of study. Nerves have given way to excitement, and though this is a sort of farewell, it seems to point to a future of enthusiastic Irish study.

To wrap up the week, each class gives a group performance. Some sing songs. Others read poems. The last group stages a traditional wake. One man lies on a rickety desk, while a serene line of mourners pass, muttering tributes in impeccable grammar.

He lies still for a long time after the mourners have gone. He gets a few laughs, shifting, as time passes, into bemused concern. Finally, he stands. He bows, thanking the group. The students depart. Some drive to late flights; others gather in the pub. Though they won’t save the language on their own, they carry friendships, phrases and melodies that may help to keep it aflame. After all, Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste (Broken Irish beats clever English).

Chris Poole is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Letters: Labour aren't perfect – but they're not the Tories
Letters

Letters: Labour aren't perfect – but they're not the Tories

We must 'tackle poverty to save the NHS and improve the nation's health', next government told
Health

We must 'tackle poverty to save the NHS and improve the nation's health', next government told

Letters: Sunak is one of Britain's richest men – how can he relate to people on benefits?
A meter
Letters

Letters: Sunak is one of Britain's richest men – how can he relate to people on benefits?

The Lib Dems don't go far enough – we need free meals for all school children, campaigners say
Stock image of children eating out of lunchboxes to illustrate an article about free school meals
General election 2024

The Lib Dems don't go far enough – we need free meals for all school children, campaigners say

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know