James describes language as the main reason for his good relationship with his son. The choice to speak Irish helped him to be “a better parent”. How his ideas caught fire and echoed deep within his wider family.


Weird and pointless?


A friend of mine said recently: "Do you know what the most difficult thing about learning Irish is?" I thought he would say the conjugation, the verbs, or genders. "It’s that Irish people won't speak it"

Why not?
I don't have a very quick simple explanation for that, but what I can say is why I didn’t speak it at a certain point in my life.

I still remember the first word I learned in Irish at the age of five. It was “carr” and I remember both thinking that was weird and pointless, and still think it is. In Irish, I would rather use gluaisteán. It means “the thing that moves” and I like that it's different from ‘car’.

Since starting school, I had a 40min Irish class every single day, but at the age of 18 my 10minute oral examination was the longest conversation I’d had after 13 years of studying the language in Ireland. That conversation was both novel and utterly terrifying to me.

What would you have given your 18-year-old self to make Irish more appealing?
Experience. I think experience outside of the classroom, with the language, through the language, not necessarily about the language, but something like summer camps. I hadn’t had any of that.

What changed then to make you speak Irish with your son?
I met a native speaker at University



People make the difference


I remember hearing him speak to his mother on the phone in Irish. I didn't understand a word of it! Because he obviously spoke completely different Irish to all my non-native teachers and he used words in a dialect that was not on the syllabus. That floored me! I took Irish as a subject at University and started learning with adults, which radically changed my relationship to it, and I started spending more time in the native communities, which we call the Gaeltacht.

All that hugely informs what my son and I are doing now and that's why it matters an awful lot more to me that he gets such experiences with languages.

The two of us get to spend the whole of Saturday together. His mum benefits from that too, because she gets to sleep in whilst he and I go to the playground or attend an Irish playgroup together. It is the time we get to have fun, which just happens to be in Irish.

Do you think you would have spent this intensive one day on the weekend away together, exploring the world together, if it wasn’t for the Irish language?
I'd like to think so, but I fear that I might not have. I'm allowed to be a better parent because I've made these aims for bilingualism. There's a lot of good things that come with it, and aside from the typical ‘you'll be good at maths when you learn it’ or ‘a third language will come more easily’, there are definitely ways that we have structured our lives that are better for us as a family because of that little aspiration. I think that I am a better parent because of it.



Language as a justification for making time


It almost sounds like language is your ‘excuse’ for making time.
That’s actually not a bad word. It’s my justification, because it’s not all about the language. Language is part of giving my child the best childhood possible. There are things we do for various reasons and maybe it’s just easier to say it’s for the language.

(George, James's partner): It has been quite a good thing for us to talk about it as a couple as well. In the past, I’ve been involved in work with children and young people, and this has taught me the importance of a positive, good childhood. This is what we want. We both knew that Irish wouldn’t have been sustainable without the fun, but James has made Irish such an integral part of their father-son bond that it’s impossible to imagine them without it.

The Irish language was part of my life when he came along. I couldn't possibly exclude him from that without giving him a chance. It would be awful. I've got other hobbies, but the Irish language and Irish culture is absolutely number one and has consistently been for my entire adult life. It would be so weird for me to not share that with him. It was a big leap for me to decide to exclusively speak to him in my second language. But what else would I do? Every word I would say in English would shut him out of the language of half my social life.



It has an ageless charisma


I take our son with me to meet-ups with other Irish speakers. We kind of ignore him a little, and he sort of ignores us, which is fine. But more and more he's developed an Irish-language relationship with those older people, and another huge thing that comes out of this is a very natural intergenerational language community.

The Irish language is really, really old, it’s also full of lots of fun new words, but it's somehow ageless, open and shareable among generations. It’s lovely seeing older people hanging out with a two year old, one begging the other to buy him a lollipop. It's a really beautiful thing in a city.

It all sounds so perfect.
I definitely had doubts when our son wasn't speaking so much Irish back to me, and I definitely had doubts about my ambitions. But I've also had other moments where I thought, wow! I think this might actually work. I think he could end up being somebody who is very, very competent in at least two languages.

(George, James's partner) You doubt everything about parenting at some point!

True. And the stuff he's come up with astounded me. His ability to transfer what I thought were really difficult things in Irish and don't exist in English, he’s naturally done it: adding plurals to nouns, adding gender where I’m wait, how did you do that? Maybe it’s my bias as an Anglophone, but it’s absolutely phenomenal. That’s such a geeky thing to entertain me, what’s far more important is that he enjoys the language.



The ripple effects


Me speaking Irish to our son was initially very weird to George's parents, I think. Her father came back saying things like “I think that’s good for maths”. It must have tickled his curiosity enough to make him research bilingualism online. And her mother’s response was to tap into French, which is an ancestral language of theirs. French was in the family to a degree and she now sings French songs to her grandchild. That’s become a big part of their friendship.

(George, James's partner): I think it had a big impact on James’s family too. His nephews in Ireland have taken much more of an interest in Irish since he speaks it with their cousin, and his mother and sister have started speaking it too. They are now conversing in Irish whenever we visit them with our child, which they weren’t doing before.

Yes, it has become a language they use lately.

So you not only got your in-laws to google bilingualism and sing old French songs, you also got your family to reconnect with their roots!
It's wonderfully infectious.



Experience the language


Recently, we were at a weekend organised for Irish-speaking families. It was our son's first truly immersive experience that was more than coffees and gardens and listening to old men talking about the novels they’ve read. It was really play-based and he responded hugely to it.

He's saying more and more stuff in Irish now, and his sentences are more complete, which is kind of the natural progression at this stage anyway, but the amazing new thing is that he speaks Irish with me in front of people who don’t necessarily speak Irish. Before our little trip to the Gaeltacht that wouldn’t have happened.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s hard to say what brought about this change. I think that before, he had English all around him, he was just in that language context, or mode, and that would come out quicker. Now Irish resides somewhere in his active memory too, just before he turns three sometime soon.


Madalena Xanthopoulou

visual storyteller / founder of @the_alma_collective / structuralist / home in many worlds / #raisingmultilingualchildren