Language: A Polish lesson for Ireland

Travelling outside the English-speaking world is a stark reminder that most of the planet is neither Anglicised nor Americanised. Hysteria over globalisation has prompted many to fear the prevalence of chain stores as a sign that a country is losing its identity and being consumed by superficiality. Humans have always been shallow consumers in search of profitable trade so there is little change, except that the pace has perhaps been accelerated by technological advancements. The more cash an individual has, the greater his or her purchasing power. It is human compulsion that gets people to spend, not merely Western manipulation.

Spending aside, there are real characteristics of every culture that risk being eroded. Language is a key consideration here. Reading Irish media, one could be forgiven for believing the entire island has given up on Gaeilge, the Irish language. Some complain of the expense of translating official documents into Gaeilge, while others argue compulsory Irish at school is a waste of resources when students could be learning ‘useful’ languages. But what is a useful language? By those people’s measure, I imagine it is English, Mandarin and Spanish, which are among the world’s most widely-spoken tongues. Others retain respect for German, French and Japanese, particularly in the context of business. Does that mean the rest of the world’s languages should be left to die out? Following the logic of naysayers, that would be the obvious conclusion. But to argue that the Danes should ditch Danish or that Indonesia should toss away Indonesian is absurd. Languages are beautiful and provide insight into culture. Translation is fascinating and losing language diversity would in many ways be akin to wiping out variations in race. It would make the world a duller place.

On a sun holiday to Poland this summer I observed that hotel staff were fluent in German. They could speak English too, but their language skills were targeted at Germans because it is one of their main trading partners and tourist markets. To suggest that the Polish should adopt German as their official language for convenience is outrageous, however. Yet many Irish argue preservation of the native tongue should be abandoned essentially because it is inconvenient. Poland, being a continental European country, was wiped off the map for 100 years. During that time, its people were subjected to torture as a means to exterminate their language, which forms a huge part of their cultural identity. The Polish saved their tongue and regained their land. They are rightly proud of themselves.

Gaeilge is a Celtic language thought to be 2,500 years old and influenced by old Irish. During the early invasions of Ireland, carried out by the Vikings, the Normans, the English and the Scottish, Gaeilge was kept vibrantly alive. The invaders embraced Irish culture, adopted the language and generally assimilated very well. From time-to-time it grated on the English monarch that his landlords in Ireland became so comfortable in their new surroundings. Yet it was the most widely-spoken language on the island until the 19th Century, when it was banned by the British government. Yes the Irish had Gaeilge literally beaten from their mouths, but the Polish experience shows preservation is both possible and advantageous.

Ireland grapples with its identity and struggles to strike a healthy balance in its attitude towards Britain. We could learn two important lessons from our Polish friends; the significance of the native tongue, and the importance of good relations with our closet neighbour without overcompensating for past grievances.


Poznań, Poland


About natashabrowne

Natasha is a freelance journalist and aspiring economist.
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