Synthesis of “Imagining inclusivity: The role of language in an increasingly diverse Ireland”

This workshop involved participation from academics, policymakers, practitioners both in Ireland and abroad. The workshop set out to gain insights, both theoretical and practical, in order to imagine a more inclusive Ireland from a linguistic perspective. Participants were posed the following three questions in group discussions: 

1) What in your experience are the two greatest barriers towards families and children feeling supported in using their various languages, and especially their home language(s)?

2) What would be your top two suggestions to improve the lives of families and children along linguistic lines?  (Feel free to think as ‘blue sky’ as you would like).

3) What would be your top suggestion to making a small, practical step towards improve the lives of family and children along linguistic lines?

These are the two main takeaway points from our discussions and presentations:

1) Languages in Ireland tend to be framed as a problem, not an asset.  The discourse needs to change and we need to valorise multilingualism instead of problematising it.

2) Although policies exist to support and promote multilingualism, especially in education, the challenge lies in policy filtering down to everyday practice. There is a clear need for concrete ways to translate policy into good practice.

Strategies for addressing these two key takeaway points formed a core part of our discussions and five presentations.  The following synthesises the main points of each presentation individually (in the order it was presented during the workshop):

Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas discussed the key take-home points of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie funded project ‘Languages, Families, and Society’ (No 794800), the project sponsor of this workshop. LaFS involves ethnographic case studies of 6 families in County Galway with at least one child in primary school— two of whom speak Irish as a home language; two of whom speak Polish as a home language; and two of whom who speak Kurdish as a home language—in order to explore the question:  How is (in)equality perpetuated (or arrested) along linguistic lines? She discussed the evidence of the impact that society has on language maintenance in the home. She emphasised how all families involved in the project placed a high value on multilingualism and worked to foster connections across languages.  She also highlighted the agentive roles children play in building their multilingual competencies.  The policy implications (full slide given below) include the following:

  • The need to support for parents of migrant backgrounds in learning Irish
  • The need to problematise the practice of limiting child’s access to Irish due to age of arrival in the Republic of Ireland
The key policy implications of Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas’ LaFS project

Professor Tadhg Ó hIfearnáin illustrated the relationship between the core questions of the sociolinguistic subfield known as ‘Family Language Policy’ (‘FLP’) and wider language revitalisation initiatives, particularly the Irish language policy Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge.  He demonstrated how Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge’s emphasis on intergenerational language transmission was ahead of its time and resonated with later theoretical work on language shift and maintenance, particularly that of Joshua Fishman.  Drawin in part on his earlier work in Múscraí and Corca Dhuibhne, he also highlighted the ‘muddied’ nature of FLP, and how many conundrums may arise in exploring the complex relationship between linguistic ideologies and practices.  He also raised the important question of why similar linguistic inputs do not necessarily yield similar linguistic outputs.

Tadhg’s talk concluded with offering several important questions and avenues for further research and policy development. These included:

1) The need to understand more about the ‘outliers’ in FLP and also families who use Irish for specific (often emblematic) purposes

2) The need to understand how to better support families in which only one caregiver speaks Irish

3)  The need to more effectively exploit the reality that most of the Irish population has at least some exposure to the Irish language, a fact which is not paralleled in the case of many other autochthonous minority language languages

4) The need for more research on FLP and adolescents

Annie Asgard’s talk drew on her vast experience as an EAL practitioner and as chairperson of the English Language Teachers’ Association of Ireland (ELSTA) in exploring how teachers can create sustainable linguistically and culturally-responsive learning environments.  She outlined how wider policy tends to view language as a challenge rather than an asset, and how this wider policy filters down to practice in the classroom.  She spoke about how schools often seek exemptions for students of migrant backgrounds to learn Irish, and how this practice not only disadvantages the students, but also sends the message that neither Irish nor multilingualism are important.  She advocated a model for Irish as an Additional Language, similar to the Maltese model, where students of migrant backgrounds are given access to both English and Maltese. She also underscored the need to embed comprehensive linguistic and cultural sensitivity and support in all teachers’ CPD training as well as the need for the Department of Education and Skills to create a linguistic assessment for newly-arrived young people in Ireland so that they can be better supported throughout their education. She ended her presentation with the following recommendations for culturally and linguistically best practice in the school (full slide provided below), which includes the crucial question:

Does the teacher provide opportunities to highlight the importance of diversity for all young people and see developing multilingual young people as a benefit to the class- not a deficit”?

Annie Asgard’s recommendations for policy and practice

Dr Lorraine Connaughton-Crean’s presentation drew on her PhD thesis on Polish families in Ireland, as well as her experience as a primary teacher and her involvement with the NCCA in developing the Primary Language Curriculum/ Curaclam Teanga na Bunscoile (2019). Her work with Polish families evidenced the school-aged shift from minority to majority language (in this case, from English to Polish) and how this shift was a result not only of the school curriculum in English but also the children’s peer networks. Her talk also highlighted the varying advice parents received from teachers, with some parents being encouraged to use Polish at home, while others were actively discouraged from doing so. Her presentation emphasised how child agency can have a profound impact on FLP, and also how multilingual children sometimes perform roles as language brokers within the school setting. Resonating with Annie’s talk, Lorraine underscored how as long as multilingualism continues to be seen as a problem, turning positive developments in language policy into classroom practice will remain a challenge.  As a key avenue for future research, she advocated for research into the “impact of current developments in language education policy on FLP.”

Dr. Lorraine Connaughton-Crean’s policy and practice suggestions

Dr. Carmen Kealy spoke about her PhD research on Polish parenting.  Her presentation underscored how parenting in the context of migration should be seen as occurring across both pre- and post-migration environments. She also highlighted the need for policy to address integration needs of diverse groups while simultaneously valorising their cultural identities. One of Carmen’s key findings was that Polish parents had a preference for Polish services in accessing specific supports, which “highlights the importance of culture-specific norms and values in targeted service provision.”

The Policy Implications of Dr. Carmen Kealy’s Research

Many thanks to the speakers, workshop participants, and to the Moore Institute and the Centre for Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism (CALM).  Thanks also to Dr. John Walsh, co-director of CALM, who led the Irish language workshop group.

If you would like access to the presentations and final workshop discussion, please e-mail Cassie (Cassandra.Smith-Christmas@nuigalway.ie).


“This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 794800”.

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