Text of Talk delivered at ‘Language in a health crisis: navigating Covid-19 in a multilingual Ireland’

This seminar was delivered as part of the Moore Institute’s COVID-19 Series. Here is the written text of the talk I delivered as part of the series:

My aim today is to give a brief snapshot of the potential silver linings of language use in family life in the time of COVID-19.  This is not to undermine the immense difficulties that families and children have faced, but rather, as a means to draw out the more positive aspects and to use this space to reflect on what we can take going forward in a world that is now re-opening but is nonetheless ‘changed, changed utterly’ to borrow from the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  I should also emphasise that the positive aspects I discuss here weren’t absent from family life before the time of COVID-19 but rather, that COVID-19 offered a unique vantage point for me as a researcher to see and reflect on these positive aspects. 

This research is part of a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie fellowship that seeks to learn more about families in Galway, all of whom use a minority language in the home, and what their specific linguistic experiences can tell us in terms of the relationship of language to society.

As Annie illustrated in her video clip, the home is now the classroom and the workplace simultaneously.  I do not mean to downplay the various challenges that families face because of this reality, but in looking at the silver linings, one potential bright spot is that this blurring of boundaries can counteract children’s conception of the minority language (and I am talking primarily about Irish here) of the language a ‘school language.’  This conception of a particular language as a ‘school language’ is not unique to Ireland; I’ve actually been researching this concept for a while now, ever since I did work with a family in the Hebrides of Scotland who were trying hard to transmit Scottish Gàidhlig to the youngest members of the family. When asked why she didn’t use more Gàidhlig in the home, the daughter in the family replied, ‘Cause I’m not in school.’  Thus, this blurred boundary between school and home has the potential to delaminate that association. It therefore gives parents the latitude to creatively integrate Irish more strongly into the home in different ways that encourage the child’s positive emotional relationship with the language.  It also gives opportunities for children to engage with objects that may be more associated with their home rather than school in Irish; so for example, in one of the online discussion sessions I am doing with one of the families I have the pleasure of working with, the little girl was proudly showing me the vegetables she was growing.  She did so in Irish, helped along by her father, and it was clear that her father (who speaks to her in Irish at home even though she and her sister often answer in English) had taken this opportunity of the wonderful trend of home-growing in lockdown as an opportunity to teach his children various plant names in Irish.  It is clear in the interaction that the child is very willing to use the language and has formed a positive emotional relationship with the language, which in many ways is more than half the battle so to speak. 

It is has also given the parents space to emphasise learning across languages and for them to draw on their multilingual competencies, much the way that we saw Annie emphasise learning across languages in her lesson.   In one of the Polish families I am working with for example, in one of our discussion sessions the daughter—who is six—read to me in Polish. Her father then acted as translator to me and used this as a space to help foster the daughter’s metalinguistic awareness across English and Polish.  Normally, the daughter would attend a complementary Polish Saturday school, which was a key support for her literacy development in her home language.  This now of course is the remit of the parents, but what I have seen is the parents thrive, supporting their daughter’s literacy across languages (Polish, English, and some Irish as well), which again points to the potential positive aspects of home language learning in the time of COVID- the fact that the many of the parents will be speakers of both the home language and English, thus allowing more time for learning across languages than may be possible in a traditional maintstream school.

Finally, this time the potential to emphasise children’s agency and for play-based learning in conjunction with language learning and language maintenance.  In the Irish-speaking family mentioned beforehand, looking over their videos, it appears that art has featured very strongly in their children’s language learning. In the Polish family I was speaking about earlier, the little girl said that the best thing about lockdown was ‘getting to play with her mommy and daddy.’  Now this isn’t to imply that her parents did not play with her before the lockdown, but rather, that the lockdown afforded her parents the opportunity to engage her in play even more frequently, and that as consistent with their family language policy, they use Polish in doing so, thus allowing for to build an even stronger positive emotional relationship through her home language. And finally, to end with one more little vignette, in one of the videos that the Irish-speaking family sent me, the two girls are playing ‘shop’ with their dolls.  The younger girl comes in wanting to buy underwear for her doll.  The older daughter sells her underwear, with her made-up brand name of  ‘na bristiní,’ which means underwear as Gaeilge.  The father asks the girls what they are doing and the older daughter proudly explains about her new doll underwear brand ‘na bristiní’- again, this is a tiny example of Irish language use, but as I said before, half the battle is forming the positive emotional relationship with the language and  here we can clearly see the daughter’s positive emotional use of the language as well as her creativity and agency in using the language.

In summary, I hope that what I have done is given a short snapshot of the types of opportunities that we can build on as we move forward, whether that involves more time spent learning at home, or in the classroom, or in a combination of both. I hope I have highlighted the potential for integrating the minority language in the home, as well as facilitating the child’s positive emotional relationship with the language through valorising their agency and creativity, and for building children’s metalinguistic awareness across languages.  Thank you for listening and a very special thank you to all the families who have taken part in the project. 

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