Due to the pandemic, Gaelchultúr ran its summer Irish course online rather than in the classroom and, as people all over the world were able to attend the classes, the number of learners increased significantly. However, it was not just the learners who benefited from this new model: it also benefited the teachers, as this article by one of Gaelchultúr’s teaching staff, Ruth Nic Giolla Iasachta, shows.
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1. Tell us about your own background
I grew up in County Meath, near the Ráth Chairn Gaeltacht, but my parents are from Dublin so Irish was not the main language at home. I attended Scoil Uí Ghramhnaigh in Athboy and then Eureka in Kells. I did a degree in English and French at Trinity College because I’ve always had a great interest in languages and travel and I wanted to participate in the Erasmus programme. In the end, I spent a summer in Montreal in Canada working and brushing up on my French – an excellent experience! After university, I spent a year in Lille in the north of France and that was where I started teaching Irish.
2. How did it happen that you started teaching the language there?
A few days after I started at the University of Lille as an English language lectrice (language tutor), the other young graduates and myself were asked if anyone would be willing to teach Irish as well. My colleague and I decided to teach the class between us and it was a great experience for me. As we had no teaching materials from Ireland, we had to create everything from scratch. It was 1999, and the internet was not as developed as it is now! We designed a course for complete beginners who were not English speakers and I really enjoyed the course as it allowed me to take another look at the structure of Irish and find unusual ways to explain things. My French also improved from working in Lille.
Since then, I’ve provided Irish language classes to adults in New Zealand (Lower Hutt Irish Society; Auckland University Center for Continuing Education) and in France (Center culturel irlandais; Université de Bretagne Occidentale). I was also involved in translating a Breton board game into Irish (Lámha Síos ), which is suitable for both learners and good speakers. I love sharing Irish language songs and Irish culture with people from other countries. When I was in Auckland doing a PhD on Māori Television and TG4, I had the opportunity to learn Maori. I have always been very fond of adult beginners! I also worked with Bord na Gaeilge (now Gaeltacht UCD) in Dublin, teaching Irish to Erasmus students and foreign staff members.
3. Did you have any experience of teaching online before this summer?
To tell the truth, I’m not great when it comes to technology! I love human contact and being able to sense the energy when a group is engaged in learning and working together. That said, I’ve had a lot of experience using the likes of Skype and WhatsApp to make video calls to my family while abroad. So it wasn’t too difficult getting the hang of Zoom. This summer, I started teaching online for the first time in my life. I much prefer to be present in the classroom – but online classes are always very convenient for people who live a long distance from a learning centre or have responsibilities that make it impossible for them to travel. And it’s great that people from all over the world can come together on virtual platforms and work together.
4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching online?
The biggest disadvantages of online teaching, I think, are that you can’t judge the atmosphere and it’s less clear if people are about to ask a question – you have to wait until they say something. I miss the few “social” minutes when people first come into class and when the teacher has a chance to connect with the learners and build a better relationship with them. A big part of teaching is to create a positive atmosphere so that learners are at ease and don’t hesitate to speak out. Sometimes things get delayed if the technology fails: a microphone not working properly, a poor connection, and so on. But from my own experience so far, everyone is very patient and considerate when such problems arise. We are fortunate to have this possibility, that we don’t have to resort to sending emails or recorded material to learners, one by one!
What I like most about online teaching is that it allows certain people to take a chance and ask or answer a question, because they feel more “safe” behind the screen. Learners can be more independent in their own space and they have access to online resources such as dictionaries and the like. It 's great that we have groups in which there are learners from different parts of the world and that learners from different time zones are able to have a conversation in class and work together. Time isn’t wasted travelling either. I love the fact that I don’t have thousands of photocopies to make or equipment to carry from room to room.
5. Do you think online education will grow or will learners want to return to the classroom?
I think we have no choice now but to reimagine and develop online education in new ways. We don’t know what lies ahead in the case of the pandemic and it’s important to be as prepared as we can be in case there’s a second wave.
Most of the younger generation are very comfortable with social media and I think short excerpts that give tips or a description of a particular feature will grow in popularity – it’s hard to pay full attention to a long video on screen, but I suppose the same problem occurred in the case of lectures!
Speaking of language learning, I think it’s very important to be able to go to a place where the language is spoken and for the learner to have the opportunity to be involved in the community. There is much more to language than just words and there is a danger that a virtual course cannot give the learner the appropriate experience. I would prefer it to be both a “live” experience where people are physically present and then a virtual one where they can build on their learning and delve deeper into the topic with the help of the excellent online resources (dictionaries and so on). I would like to believe that we will create a hybrid approach in the future.
It also occurs to me that I will have to find a more comfortable chair. I used to walk around or remain standing while teaching – now I find it hard to stay seated for the whole class!