The other day, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, while writing about Northern Ireland and the Irish Language dispute in the Daily Telegraph, appears to have argued that it was a good thing that the Irish Language revival movement in the Republic of Ireland had been a failure. Here is what he said:
"Éamon de Valera, the father of Irish independence, had three ambitions for his new state: it should be Catholic, economically self-sufficient and Irish-speaking. Happily, he had little success with the second or third, and Ireland has flourished in the internet age as an Anglophone market economy.
Readers in Great Britain might struggle to understand why the parties in Northern Ireland have fallen out over an issue as abstruse as the status of Irish – a language spoken at home by less than a quarter of one per cent of the population."
To be fair to him though, he did go on to describe it as ‘that beautiful tongue’ but all while arguing how useless and pointless he thinks it is, and of course, as expressed in paragraph one, he is thankful that Ireland does not speak its native tongue.
Now, I happen to agree with Daniel Hannan on a lot other issues – on maintaining a strong private sector and economic liberalisation, on decentralisation and proportional representation. However, his recent comments on the Irish Language are, to me, just so outrageous that I feel compelled to write in opposition to them.
Would an Irish-speaking Ireland have really been such a disaster?
What Daniel Hannan seemed to be arguing therefore, was that speaking English as your sole mother tongue was a prerequisite for success in the 21st century.
True? Of course not - of the 10 richest countries in the world by nominal GDP Per Capita in 2017, as listed by the IMF, only three, Ireland, Australia and the US, had more than half their inhabitants speak English as their first language. The other seven are all content with merely speaking it as their second language, and in Luxembourg and Switzerland’s case – as their fourth or fifth language, perhaps.
An Irish-speaking Ireland (with English merely as its second language) would therefore not have to be a single cent poorer than the Anglophone Ireland that we know in our timeline – Daniel Hannan was talking nonsense.
However, the word ‘nonsense’ is perhaps being too kind - for that kind of talk is certainly not the nonsense of the cute and cuddly variety that you’d expect a baby to speak – but rather the signs of an attitude that has the potential to offend the billions of people who aren’t native English-speakers and embarrass the hundreds of millions of us who are.
That attitude, which believes that due to English being the preeminent international Lingua Franca, all other languages are therefore a waste of space and should be liquidated, is one that I have come across unfortunately all too often.
When I was on a Baltic tour with some Uni friends, we came across this thuggish American tourist in Latvia who was telling the locals around him in a café to stop speaking Latvian in his presence because English was the language that everyone was 'supposed to speak' while in Welsh-speaking Wales, you’ve had English tourists and incomers telling locals to stop speaking Welsh to each other in public.
Likewise, when I was at an Anglo German wedding back in 2014, I met someone who said that the fact that ‘everyone speaks English’ meant that German was ‘useless,’ while in 2016, BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman made similar remarks about French.
I however, should have expected better from Daniel Hannan. He himself speaks French and Spanish, and so surely he, in spite of his Anglo-British nationalism, ought to believe that having other languages on this planet is no bad thing.
PS: Just for the record, I happen to myself be an English teacher as well as a language enthusiast who has learnt French and Welsh and is learning Chinese.