Saturday, 26 March 2011

Mandarin — is it an Orange thing?

Lindy McDowell in the Belfast Telegraph has an opinion piece on Caitríona Ruane's tenure at the Department of Education. The latest episode in the saga is largely what we have come to expect, i.e. with a focus ostensibly on the abolition of the 11-plus but expressed with a peculiarly unwarranted vehemence that suggests the subtext may be power-sharing itself. Like more than one such article, McDowell's piece gives marks to Caitríona: a rhetorical flourish or wishful thinking? After all, one might point out, on the issue of grammar schools the Sinn Féin Minister is only attempting to bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain — or indeed, not even that, since her avowed target is the blunt instrument of the transfer test rather than the existence of more academically focused second-level institutions.

Recent coverage of Ruane in the Belfast Telegraph has bordered on the neuralgic, with screaming headlines about children — presumably Protestant — learning Irish, as if they would all turn into Catholic pumpkins at midnight if they started learning a little about the history and place-names of their native province. At its most basic level, such cheap reporting exploits atavistic fears. It may also reinforce them.

The Blether Region was struck by one line in an editorial, stating that the Bel-Tel "believes in a system which rewards merit". (Note to editor: the argument that the "reward" of a better education than might otherwise be gained goes to those who display "merit" by learning to the transfer test is an argument of those who oppose the 11-plus. Those who support it, on the other hand, argue that it is a sensitive gauge of the most suitable education for a child).

Be that as it may. Lindy McDowell's piece includes the following comment on the Minister's plans to give more Protestant children the chance to learn Gaelic.

"Not that there is anything wrong with Irish (although Mandarin might perhaps be more useful. Or even a sound vocational training)."

One really does wonder how many children could ever become fluent in a radically different language such as Chinese (an aside: surely the Cantonese dialect would be easier to pick up in Northern Ireland). If anyone has ever read the manual of a Chinese electrical product, then it should have alerted them to how Europeans probably sound in Chinese. However, if any children do manage to learn it, the Blether Region will bet that it is not the first foreign language that they have attempted.

Does Ms McDowell genuinely believe that those who learn Mandarin will be language virgins? It is, after all, a commonplace among practical linguists that, having mastered one language, of whatever type, an individual will find it easier to learn another. A reasonably different tongue such as Irish would provide both a grounding in language learning and an indication of language aptitude — a sort of 11-plus, in fact, only more relevant.

And anyone who has ever attended a course at Oideas Gael will know that, far from being the sole concern of ideologues or dreamers, Irish is in fact big business; its teaching attracts many foreign students. Making money from Chinese, on the other hand, would be likely to presuppose a resurgence in manufacturing, probably of machine tools, a rather big ask.

An obsession with Mandarin at the expense of Irish displays a failure of entrepreneurial imagination but also a reflexive assumption that what is native is without value — and a projection of that mindset onto a world that may think quite differently.

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