- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

CHICOPEE, Mass. (AP) - An labhraíonn tú an Ghaeilge?

The answer to that question could be, “Yes, I speak Irish,” if you take Irish language classes at Elms College in Chicopee.

In cooperation with the college, the Irish Cultural Center is offering Irish language courses for credit and non-credit classes during the spring semester.

“I think the Irish language reflects Irish culture and life more accurately than the English language does,” said Vikki Ní Bhréin, Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Elms College. “Irish is a very romantic and passionate language and those are two traits that I feel are central to the Irish persona. The Irish language suits our personality and thus, if we lost it, we would lose part of our identity as well.”

It’s also important to consider Irish national history, she added. “We must remember that people have died to give our generation the right to know and speak our language. Therefore, I feel it would be an insult to our ancestors if, when we don’t face the same adversities as they did, we did not afford the next generation the same opportunity.”

Kathleen E. Doe, an Irish Cultural Center board member and language student, is in her seventh year taking Irish classes.

“I first started the language classes because I wanted to learn something new that connected me to my heritage. I enjoy everything else about Irish culture, and this was something unique,” she said. “Learning and knowing the language allows for a greater understanding overall of the culture that is connected to it.”

“All the teachers - the local instructors and the Fulbright foreign language teaching assistants- are very committed to ensuring that the students get the most out of the classes,” Doe said. “It has been great having the different Fulbright foreign language teaching assistants because every teacher brings their own experiences, and they focus on something a little different every year.”

The main focus is always conversation and developing students’ skills to use the language.

Students in Ireland learn Irish in school and must pass Irish in the Leaving Certificate examinations to gain entry into any of the seven Irish universities, and a high grade in Irish is also compulsory for teaching, as Irish is a compulsory subject, noted Vikki Ní Bhréin, an instructor from Blackrock, County Dublin. “Overall our education system protects the Irish language well.”

The current government has expressed interest in making Irish an optional subject for students aged 15-18, “which is very disheartening for the Irish-speaking community and has led to many, large protests across the country,” she said.

“What is encouraging, however, is that a large proportion of young people have spoken out against these plans, and this has proven that the Irish language still has a central place in the hearts of Ireland’s next generation.”

There also has been a surge in adult learners returning to classes to relearn Irish.

In 2003, The Official Languages Act was passed which gave the Irish new language rights to ensure that they could live their daily lives through Irish to the greatest extent possible. “Many people have chosen to avail of these language rights and thus, Irish has become far more visible in day-to-day life,” Ní Bhréin said.

Irish is no longer an old-fashioned, dying language but a part of modern life. Pop bands, Facebook, memes, video games, most things that are available in English are available in Irish. “And I think this makes Irish a lot more attractive to modern society,” Ní Bhréin said, adding that as Ireland approaches many centenary anniversaries associated with its independence, a new wave of patriotism has been inspired in Ireland.

Irish classes began at Elms College before the advent of the Irish Cultural Center in 1999. Classes had been in place since the late 1980s.

Irish language non-credit courses formally were offered through the center in conjunction with the Continuing Education Department at the college. Classes were offered to accommodate a variety of interests from the community. Lyrics to music, the meaning of place names, family connections and a desire to understand more about a language that was important to understanding the culture were among the reasons for this class offering.

Gerald F. Costello, Irish Cultural Center language coordinator, estimates that more than 600 people from the community have been introduced to the language.

The majority of students are from the Springfield area; however, there have been students from as far west as Pittsfield and as far east as Worcester.

In addition, there has been an immersion day on the first Saturday in May for the past 14 years. Participants have come from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. “We have attracted over 50 people on a consistent basis to this program which highlights language and a variety of workshops,” Costello said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has listed the Irish language as a “definitely endangered” language, he pointed out. “Students are aware of this and want to do their part to help the language survive because it so important to capture the unique characteristics and music of this ancient language.

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