Is Irish an Endangered Language?

Tourist season was in full swing when I arrived in Ireland in late June for a six-week study-abroad program through New York University, where I’m working on my master’s degree in Irish Studies. International tourists clustered outside the Trinity College gates while language schools passed out advertisements on Dame Street—for English classes. I met a few students relaxing on the Trinity lawn, and we joked about my interest in the Irish language, since I’m neither Irish nor of Irish heritage. They asked me how I was. Conas atá tú? I said I was fine. Tá mé go maith. Then the students began to say random words, and it was clear we’d nearly exhausted their knowledge of Irish.

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Paradoxically, even though I probably heard more Spanish than Irish on the Dublin streets, I felt surrounded by written Irish wherever I went. Museums provided bilingual descriptions of their exhibits, and road signs in Dublin were in both Irish and English. Later, when I visited the West, many road signs were Irish-only. Although English is spoken all over Ireland, Irish is the Republic of Ireland’s first official language and a recognized minority language in Northern Ireland. In 2007, it became one of the 23 official languages used for European Union business, and it’s promoted in the Irish education system, through the legislative framework, and through the media. If it’s not clear yet that the Irish language is highly valued in the Republic of Ireland, consider this: a recent survey found that 92 percent of the Irish population ranked Irish as important either to themselves personally or to Ireland as a nation.

Yet there are still causes for concern. UNESCO lists Irish as “endangered” in the Republic of Ireland, and technically “extinct” as a first language in Northern Ireland. Like other endangered languages, Irish faces a multitude of challenges, including English dominance, varying levels of language proficiency among speakers, and a wide geographic dispersion of speakers. According to the most recent Census on the Irish language, as of 2006, almost 1.7 million people in Ireland—around 42 percent of the population aged three and over—reported that they could speak Irish. But more than a million of those people admitted that they either never speak it or speak it less than once a week. Only around 72,000 speak the language daily outside of the education system; that’s only about 4 percent of the people who say they can speak Irish. In 2006, the government formed a 20-year strategy to raise that number to at least 250,000 daily speakers of the language by 2028.

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Although I didn’t personally hear much Irish in Dublin, urban speakers are a sizable and growing contingent of those who speak the language. My most authentic Irish-speaking moment happened far from the bustling city, however, during my last weekend trip to western Ireland. When I arrived on Inis Mór in the Aran Islands, I rented a bicycle, and I interacted with several people in the process—in English. After I returned my bike at the end of my trip, two of the people who had helped me suddenly broke into Irish while discussing something with each other. Lurking just beneath the surface, Irish is alive and well on Inis Mór. I wonder how many other opportunities to interact in Irish I overlooked. On my next trip to Ireland, I’ll be ready to take advantage of them.

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  • Alan Fisk

    When asked, Irish people say that they don’t want Irish to disappear, and that it’s important to them, but what they mean is that they want other people to speak Irish.

  • Mary

    I’m wondering what percentage of the millions of dollars that Rosetta Stone makes off of their retail products goes back to support the communities and native speakers of Navajo, Gaelic, and other endagered languages. What is Rosetta Stone doing to support real human teachers for these families? Software’s nice – but language requires human interaction and exchange. You can’t learn it from a box.

    • rvoiceadmin

      Hi, Mary. Rosetta Stone produces an endangered language in conjunction with a sponsoring group. While working with Rosetta Stone experts, groups sponsoring an Endangered Language Program [ELP] project translate, adapt, and customize their edition of the software to make it culturally and linguistically relevant to their community. Sponsors retain ownership of the language materials developed during the project, and they gain exclusive sales and distribution rights over their finished edition.

      The flexibility of the Rosetta Stone method allows for our solution to be used as part of an integrated school language program, or independently by children or adults to reinforce language use and provide unlimited exposure to fluent native speakers. To learn more about our ELP, visit our website at

  • irishlearner

    I am learning Irish through both rosetta stone and pimslers. I like both of them very much. I am of Irish/Scottish decent and I am glad to have tools available to me to learn the language of my ancestors. Irish is not a dying language, I know a people in Ireland who speak it. I only wish I had Scottish materials available to me like the Irish.

  • Kay

    Great article. I hope you are able to return to the Aran islands, you will find that even on the mainland in that area of the west (the Gaeltacht) you can hear Irish spoken as a first language. One question I had: what form or dialect of Irish does Rosetta Stone use? One barrier to learning Irish is that there are so many different dialects, in addition to the “official” state language which may be a mixture of regional dialects or something different altogether. A simple question such as “how are you” can be different depending upon region. Since a sponsoring group was mentioned, could you let us know which one it is for the Irish language? That would provide a lot of information on what version of the language it is. Thanks very much!

  • Alexie Harper

    Thanks for your suggestion, Kay! I’d definitely love to return to western Ireland. To answer your question, the Rosetta Stone Irish product uses Caighdeán, the standard written dialect of Irish, as spoken in Munster. The Munster accent is considered to be relatively easy to pronounce for new learners. Please let us know if you have any other questions for us!

  • Fat Lester

    Irish is definitely waning in terms of everyday usage, but each and every one of my cousins who grew up in the old country (aged 20-35) can speak it fluently.

    Furthermore, anyone who wants to stop teaching it in Irish schools can póg mo thóin.

  • Rich McLeroy

    Wow, this is all REALLY intriguing… except for the fact that the Irish language is actually called Celtic. Way to keep it alive!

    • Rosetta Stone

      Hi Rich, thanks for your comment. Irish is one of the Celtic languages (a group that also includes Welsh and Cornish, among others). When referring to Irish, it is proper to call it Irish or Irish Gaelic.

  • Valorie

    Just returned from Ireland yesterday and was intrigued by the use of the language while there. Some used different words than I had learned in preparation for the trip. Most adults told me their kids spoke better Gaelic than they did. They learn it at school. Uniformly, their complaint was that the effort to teach Gaelic had been heavy-handed and boring, forcing kids to read dull, long and depressing literature in Gaelic, instead of having a incremental, user-friendly approach. I noticed that the tv station had some programs that encouraged use of the language that were more “fun”, like a contest between chefs in which everything was described in Irish, then highschool kids got to taste and vote on the desserts. That would pique MY interest! 🙂 Anyway, hopefully there will be a voluntary resurgence of interest in their language. It’s cool and very different than the latin-based languages.

  • Connie

    I’m from the West – Galway city. I go home regularly and almost always travel to the Aran Islands each visit, where Gaelic is the spoken language. the “country” mainland also has specific areas that you will hear Gaelic spoken more often than not. Moycullen, Spiddal, Clifden, Connemara, Oughterard etc. Most of my family at home speak a fair amount of Gaelic – I only remember brief sentences, as in greetings etc.

  • Prince of Connaught

    They speak Irish all throughout the West of Ireland in Connemara where the most untarnished archives of Celtic culture still persist to this day. You should try exploring the villages around the 12 Bens and take a trip to the many other Islands off the coast of Galway.

  • Siadhal

    I would love to believe that Irish is surviving well in the Aran islands but I met Poles there who have lived there for years and never bothered to learn Irish. They said they didn’t need it. So much for it being vital there.

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