An Interview with iHateIrish director Robin Rynhart

OpenLanguage has teamed up with the Ireland-based iHateIrish team to bring Irish language content to our ever-expanding suite of languages. Available now under the “Other Languages” section, Irish is not simply another accent of English but rather is its own language with a distinct and rich history.

Here is an interview with iHateIrish director Robin Rynhart about this exciting new addition to OpenLanguage.

I think many people aren’t even aware that Irish is its own language. What’s the history of this language? Is it related to English?

Irish was the native language of Ireland for centuries, its origins dating back to the Ogham stone inscriptions of the fourth Century AD. Early recordings of Irish appearing in the marginalia of Latin manuscripts of 5th century Christians. It wasn’t until the 17th century under English rule that Irish began to decline. So for most of its existence Irish remained relatively independent of English and other outside languages.

In more recent times some English words are accepted as part of spoken Irish. Modern technology vocabulary for example. But in general you can consider Irish to be unrelated to English.

How many people in Ireland still speak Irish today? How, when, and where is it used?

According to the latest Census figures approximately 90,000 people consider themselves Irish speakers in normal everyday circumstances. This figure has begun to increase in recent years, largely down to increasing numbers of middle class Irish sending their children to Irish speaking primary and secondary schools. Also the government has increased the proportion or marks given to oral Irish in the state exams. (Learning Irish is compulsory in Ireland up to the end of secondary education).

In practice though, it is rare to hear Irish spoken. Irish speakers tend to speak in Irish to other known Irish speakers, and in English to everyone else. Even in the Gaeltacht areas of parts of the west of Ireland and middle class areas of Dublin.

That said, everyone educated in Ireland will have spent 14 years learning Irish, and will retain a smattering of Irish. iHateIrish hopes to improve that smattering of Irish into a good basic level of conversational Irish for all those who didn’t achieve that the first time around.

Are you a native Irish speaker? What is your background with the language?

My own background in Irish is probably the most typical for an Irish person learning Irish through the state system.

At an early age , (the end of primary school) I was told I had a natural talent for Irish, and that one day I would be fluent. Secondary school filled my head with the harsh reality of needing to acquire skills that would get me a job, and learning Irish got sidelined. I then began to dislike the subject as I saw it as an impediment to me learning other “more important” subjects. And along with most of my peers, I left secondary school without being able to hold a decent conversation in Irish.

I did however develop a love for languages and have since achieved fluency in French, Italian, and Chinese. Its my happy experience in succeeding in these languages that inspired me to try to influence how Irish is learned. I rely on my team to provide the Irish expertise needed.

How did you become interested in teaching Irish? What’s your history of teaching it?

My own experience in learning other languages showed me that if you focus on reducing the barriers to gaining a foothold of the spoken language that you can bring a language to life very quickly. Improving fluency in that language is then much easier. Despite the improvements in how Irish is taught nowadays, I can see my own children struggle with Irish in much the same way I did. Yes, they do well in their Irish tests, and are as good as any in their classes. They have a good amount of vocabulary, and enjoy the subject. But they can’t speak a word of it in real life situations. I want to do something to change the outcome for them. All of our lessons are based in the real world of children growing up and living in Ireland. From getting your breakfast in the morning to chit chat in the school playground the short conversations allow the parents as well as the kids to have some simple conversations together in Irish.

Your lessons are called ‘iHateIrish”. Why did you decide to name it this?

On a superficial level, it’s just a name that is meant to be easy to remember, a name that kids can relate to as they like to be a bit rebellious. On another level its also meant to be a little anti-establishment, as we want all those who are currently involved in teaching Irish to understand that this is a new approach and in general we need to lower the barrier spoken Irish, particularly for all those kids who find it a challenge.

Similarly we believe the majority of kids learning Irish don’t really see the value in learning Irish, until they achieve a level where they can communicate well. And this does not happen for many under the current system. We believe we can make Irish much more accessible for everyone. Maybe we can make it cool.

Finally, the “i” in iHateIrish is supposed to imply that this is available on portable devices, which of course it is.

Some people do hate learning Irish, some people do find it a nuisance to have to learn a language that they don’t see as useful in their career. The fact of the matter is that learning Irish is compulsory, but if we learn it as a spoken language first, we can improve our exam results significantly, and reduce the pain of learning it significantly, and have the benefit of having exercised that part of our brain. So it makes sense for everyone to learn Irish in the most efficient manner available.

Who is on the “iHateIrish” team? Where are you guys located?

We have Jeff, our guru, who has just recently been working on the next Irish dictionary for the Royal Irish Academy. He keeps us on the straight and narrow in terms of the “quality” of our Irish. We focus heavily on the spoken word, which sometimes ventures into divergent opinions. Jeff gets the last word with the direction of the language and what colloquialisms are acceptable or not.

Our two presenters Sinéad and Connor. Not only do they provide the energy and fun to our lessons, but also as fluent Irish speakers they make sure we are giving our learners the most up-to-date and commonly used spoken Irish. Sinéad has been giving grinds in oral and written Irish for several years now to students taking the state exams, so she is also familiar with the parts of the language that students struggle with and how to explain it in simple terms.

Elle is our graphic artist, responsible for images of our main dialogue characters.

We have some people in the background who work with schools to ensure that our lessons work for them, and so the students can make the best use of them.

And finally myself. My expertise is in making sure that everything we do is focused on making it easier for our learners to get speaking Irish. So I have a significant input in lesson creation, recording, editing, course structure etc. not to mention sales and marketing.

We are based in the Nexus Innovation Centre on the University of Limerick campus , here in Limerick in the mid-west of Ireland.

Why did you guys decide to pursue the OpenLanguage radio-lesson style format?

Openlanguage is at the vanguard of this learning approach. It has the best learning platform available across all devices. It allows us to apply some structure to our course content and for the learners to keep track of their progress and have a sense of achievement as they get through the lessons. And my daughter says its the most fun to use. She especially loves the exercises section, which seem more like games to her. No other platform could offer advanced tools such as the speech pronunciation accuracy tool which gives you a score, depending on how good your pronunciation is.

And for the adult learners its great to be able to listen to the podcasts while on the go.

What are your favorite aspects of the Irish language? What makes the language special?

This is a tricky question for me. Like any language, there are some expressions which only make sense to Irish people. A great deal of our Irishness is encapsulated in the language. That is not to say an Irish person is any less Irish for not being able to speak the language, those same aspects of Irishness exist outside the language too. But there is a certain beauty, conciseness and quality to Irish expressions which unite us as a people in our shared consciousness, sense of humour or identity.

I’m not a Gaelgoer, (Irish fanatic), my own Irish is in fact mediocre, I have at times hated Irish as a subject at school, and I have at times thought of Irish as somewhat of a romantic notion. And I certainly protest against those who say its a prerequisite to being Irish, it most certainly is not. But, it does unite us as a people, it does have qualities that no other language has, and it can, does and probably will continue, to enrich our modern culture as time progresses.

How would do you think Irish-speakers would respond to a foreign visitor who can speak some Irish?

I’m sure that any Irish speaker would be delighted, to hear that Irish was surviving across the waves. And that someone thought enough of their homeland to take the trouble to learn to speak a few words. You would certainly get your 100 thousand welcomes. I hope iHateIrish succeeds in making it easier for this to happen.

Anything you’d like to tell the potential iHateIrish students out there?

There are other good tools out there to help you learn Irish, use them.
But with Openlanguage and iHateIrish you can add a backbone to your learning. A structure to the quickest possible route to using Irish as a language,… for talking to people. You won’t get bogged down, or fed up, and you’ll know that your Irish is the Irish of the young people of today’s Ireland.

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