An Irish of the future

A few weeks back I uploaded some information on the upcoming round of WorkGroup Meetings as part of the COST EU Action on “New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe“. The meetings which will be held at Heriot-Watt between 6-7 March 2014.

The project involves researchers from some 17 European countries. In the project we are interested in finding out more about what it means to become a ‘new speaker’ of language in the context of a multilingual Europe.

One of the multilingual strands we are exploring is indigenous minority languages and what it means to become a new speaker of languages such as Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, Galician, Catalan etc.

As a new speaker of Irish, I have been intrigued by this growing phenomenon in the case of the Irish language. I am also a new speaker or neofalante of Galician, a language spoken in northern Spain. I have also begun to pick up a smattering of Scottish Gaelic since my move over to Edinburgh.

I’ll leave my observations on Galician and Scottish Gaelic for another blog post and focus on new speakers of Irish for now and a project on which I am now working on jointly with Dr John Walsh at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Becoming a new speaker of a minority language requires commitment and dedication. The new speakers I interviewed during my field trips back to Ireland had clearly invested a lot of time in learning the intricacies of the language.

In the early years after political independence in Ireland, there was a strong link between national identity and the Irish language.

But new speakers of Irish in 21st century Ireland are no longer speaking Irish for patriotism.

Speaking Irish is more about establishing an individualized identity as opposed to a collective national identity (O’Rourke  2011: 339)

In the globalized world in which we now live, becoming a speaker of a minority language such as Irish is about standing out and being different.

As one of the new speakers I spoke to way back Dublin in 2003 told me “I think that I am very proud that I can speak Irish .. .I like that side of it you know like when other people think about you or ‘she has Irish’…. so like I stand out because of Irish and I like that…” (O’Rourke 2005: 294).

So in the Irish context where English has become the language of the majority of the population, the minority language would seem to be used by new speakers to symbolise an authentic individuality, allowing them to ‘stand out’ and as an expression of difference, reflecting a heightened concern about self-realisation and identity (O’Rourke 2005: 295)

While the Irish language was for a time tainted by the association of nationalism with political violence in Northern Ireland, for a lot of young people now, being a new speaker of Irish is more about tolerance and recognition of diversity.

New speakers bring with them new ways of speaking the language – they often mix Irish with English, they make up new words, use the language in creative ways and often speak with an urban accent.

The term ‘Dublin Irish’ was used by some of the new speakers I spoke to refer to their own way of speaking. These new speakers are bringing Irish into new contexts, ranging from hip-hop music to playful use of the language in internet chat rooms.

So instead of drawing on an Irish of the past, they are inventing and re-inventing an Irish of the future.

Bernie O’Rourke

Email – B.M.A.O’

Academia – Bernadette O’Rourke

Twitter – @BernORourke

Do "new speakers" of English in the UK face exclusion?

Just before Christmas the UK government announced that migrants will only be able to claim benefits if they pass a series of tough new tests.

One of these includes a check on their fluency in English. These tests are now to be done without the assistance of a translator or interpreter. There are also talks of stopping the printing of welfare paperwork in foreign languages.

These moves come ahead of the removal of transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian workers.  If government proposals are followed through, all foreign-born benefit claimants will face a rigorous testing of their proficiency in English.

But what exactly does proficiency mean? What counts as fluency? Who decides this? And what are the consequences of these decisions?

Acquiring, knowing and using a new language is a complicated process. It does not happen overnight. Even when a “new speaker” becomes proficient in a language in some contexts, this does not necessarily apply to all others.

Asking for a pint of milk at the corner shop does not require the same vocabulary as filling out a legal document. That is why translation and interpreting services are necessary.

Becoming a “new speaker” of a language takes time. It is often fraught by prejudicial beliefs about what counts as the correct way of speaking and by who is considered a legitimate speaker. Having a “foreign” accent is often equated with a lack of fluency and thus a point of discrimination.

Britons returning after living abroad will come under similar scrutiny and will also be challenged to demonstrate their “proficiency” in English.

But having lived abroad can also make people sound as if they have a “foreign” accent. Any of us who have lived abroad for a considerable period of time will know that we sometimes feel like we have “lost” some of our native language.

We lose some of the colloquialisms of the language and sometimes borrow words, intonation or accent from the other languages we have been exposed to. People tell us that we don’t sound “natural”.

Will this lack of “naturalness” be classified as lacking proficiency ? Could it mean failing the language test?

Globalization and European integration create a context for increased geographical mobility and the generation of “new speakers” in countries such as the United Kingdom.

For most immigrants and transnational workers, acquiring the language of their host community is essential to becoming part of their new community and playing their part in its economic, social, political and artistic life.

As one former Tory Minister put it,  “the ability to speak English is one of the most empowering tools in the labour  market and we should be encouraging as many people as possible to learn it”.

Nobody is disputing this. But what can be questioned is the expectation that becoming a “new speaker” of English, or any other language for that matter, is something that happens automatically. Learning a language takes time. Cutting support services such as translation and interpreting will not change this.

New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: 1st Round of Workgroup Meetings


COST Action IS1306:

New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe:

Opportunities and Challenges

1st Round of Workgroup Meetings

Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 6-7 March 2014



YOU ARE INVITED TO the 1st Round of Working Group Meetings of the “New Speakers” network which will take place in Edinburgh in March 2014. The “New Speakers” network is an EU-funded initiative aimed at fostering collaboration amongst researchers, facilitating the sharing of findings, and identifying key issues in research on multilingualism.

“New Speakers” refer to multilingual individuals and groups who adopt and use a language variety different from their native language.  The aim of the network is to create a dialogue amongst scholars, practitioners and policy makers interested in the “new speaker” concept and who work within and across different multilingual strands including:

  • Regional linguistic minorities, where there are now a growing numbers of “new speakers” who as a result of revitalization projects have learned their heritage languages outside of the home through formal schooling or as adults
  • Immigrant communities, where becoming a “new speaker” of a language is often essential to participating in the economic, social, political and artistic life of their new host community.
  • Transnational workers, who to varying degrees invest in multilingualism at work, at home and through the cultural products they consume

This first set of Working Group Meetings is intended to facilitate initial dialogue amongst researchers, practitioners and policy makers from different parts of Europe whose work looks specifically at “new speakers” and issues around “new speakerness” or whose work engages with multilingual practices more broadly. We welcome individual researchers as well as those linked to broader research teams to participate in our first round of working group meetings and to share their work with other members of the network.

A fuller description of the theme of the network can be found at

(see downloads for Memorandum of Understanding)


Please submit an abstract of no more than 400 words briefly describing how your research links to the overall theme of the network. Please also include the name(s), affiliation, and contact details of you and/or your research group.

Participants are invited to indicate their interest in participating in ONE of the ‘core’ Working Groups (WG) of the network:

WG1: Indigenous minority speakers

WG2: Immigrants

WG3: Transnational workers

Abstracts and enquiries should be sent to

Closing date 20th January 2014

*Please note that places at the event are limited.

Bernie O’Rourke

Email – B.M.A.O’

Academia – Bernadette O’Rourke

Twitter – @BernORourke

New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe

The recent resignation of the Irish-language commissioner in Ireland, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, featured strongly in the Irish media just before Christmas.

Irish is the official language of the Republic of Ireland. It is one of the only minority languages in Europe and perhaps in the world to have this level of official status.

However, despite this apparent protection at institutional level, there has been a very laissez-faire attitude to the language.

It is little wonder that the Irish-language commissioner accused the Irish Government of hypocrisy, and said Irish speakers in traditional heartland areas of the Gaeltacht (meaning Irish-speaking) were being neglected.

But the Irish language, like many of Europe’s other minority languages, including Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Galician, Occitan, Sami, Romani, Yiddish etc., is being embraced by new speakers.

New speakers are individuals who were not brought up speaking the language in the home as “native” speakers but who learned it as a second language outside of the home, either at school, through adult classes or some other formal means.

Followers of the blog will remember a post on the concept a few years back inviting people to our symposium New Speakers of Minority Languages: A Dialogue.

This is an exciting moment for Irish and others minority languages which are now being used in modern and new contexts.

I am currently coordinating an EU-funded COST project on the theme, ‘New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe involving researchers from some 17 European countries.

As part of the project, some of my European colleagues and I are interested in finding out more about what it means to become a new speaker of a minority language such as Irish, Gaelic or Welsh.

In particular:

▪   Why do people decide to invest time and effort in learning a minority language?

▪   What are their experiences of speaking these languages?

▪   Who are these people?

Bernie O’Rourke

Email – B.M.A.O’

Academia – Bernadette O’Rourke

Twitter – @BernORourke