Covid-19: the pandemic and the monolingual state

At the beginning of March when the pandemic was starting to spread, the Council of Europe warned that public health information about coronavirus was not being disseminated systematically by the authorities in minority languages. The Council – responsible for the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages – said that it had noticed that information and guidelines about the pandemic were frequently not published in minority languages of member states.

The question of the Charter and Irish is complex: the Irish government refused to sign it because Irish is constitutionally not a minority language, but the Council’s statement led me to begin thinking about a fundamental question for anyone who cares about language and social justice: are speakers of minority languages – in the broadest sense of the term, those who speak a language which is in a minority position in a given context – being informed in those languages about the pandemic by the authorities? How are Irish speakers and speakers of immigrant or heritage languages in Ireland being treated in this regard?

Since the Covid-19 restrictions came into place, I walked, ran or cycled what seemed like every centimetre of my new world, first within the 2km limit and then the 5km limit. The bright yellow signs all over Galway were almost entirely in English, those erected by the City Council and others bearing the logos of the Government and the Health Service Executive. One day on Eyre Square, I counted 22 Covid-19 signs in English only, some of them standing brazenly in the centre of the park and others on bus stops or hanging from lamp posts – and this in a city which formally declared itself bilingual in 2016. According to what I heard from others, the same applied in many parts of the country although there seemed to be some bilingual signage in the Gaeltacht.

My survey isn’t scientific, but the forest of English-only signs got me thinking again about the social status of the Irish language and the state’s attitude to it. As we know, Ireland is officially a bilingual state, and there are statutory obligations on state bodies to erect bilingual signage under the Official Languages Act 2003. Of course, the country is also unofficially multilingual, with over 60 languages counted in Galway alone in the last census.

An excellent book by the Israeli sociolinguist Elena Shohamy, Language Policy: Hidden Agendas and New Approaches (2005), distinguishes between the “overt” language policy – that which is declared and codified – and “covert” language policy – the real story behind the bluster and the rhetoric. Language policy in any jurisdiction operates at these two levels and in order to understand it completely we need to consider both. We can call the covert policy the “real policy” because it is the one in which most people believe, even if they don’t say so when asked. Ireland is an excellent example of this split: on the one hand we have a first official and national language, with albeit limited protection in terms of state services, but on the other it is difficult for someone to do their business in Irish with the state.

The Official Languages Act is the legislation that regulates the use of Irish in public life and signage is its most obvious manifestation. It’s no surprise that signage attracts the biggest number of complaints every year to the Irish language commissioner, An Coimisinéir Teanga. Because the provisions of the Act are quite weak, many of the duties imposed on public bodies are limited to that very visible realm which can be achieved by outsourcing text for translation. As yet, we have no rules about recruitment of bilinguals to the public service – an essential part of any bilingual public administration – and the monolingual Covid-19 signage all over the country is stark evidence that we can’t even implement the most basic and limited duties mandated by the Act.

Since the restrictions were announced, Irish has also been marginalised in other areas, for instance online public health information. The website www.gov.ie is almost entirely in English and when the five stages to reopening the country were announced, there was no sign of them in Irish. At the time of writing, almost two weeks after the introduction of Phase 3, the Irish version of www.gov.ie was still referring to Phase 2.

The HSE website www.hse.ie isn’t much better. It contains far fewer resources about Covid-19 in Irish, and they’re scattered throughout the website rather than centralised. There are plenty of different ways of accessing information in English – guides, videos, audio resources, banners and social media graphics – but no sign of anything comparable in Irish. The information published in 23 immigrant languages, from Albanian to Yoruba, appears more organised. However, two immigrant rights organisations, Together Ireland and the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, complained that the multilingual information was inadequate and published their own series of videos in 30 languages. When neither Irish speakers nor speakers of other languages are happy, there is something seriously wrong with the HSE’s language policy.

In March the government issued a booklet in English-only about Covid-19 to every household in the country. A month later, the Irish version arrived, a clear breach of the Official Languages Act which requires all such mail shots to be bilingual. This was manna from heaven for the critics of Irish, of course. In a shockingly shoddy piece of journalism, Newstalk presenter Ivan Yates expressed outrage at the alleged waste of public resources but never asked the government why it breached the legislation. The Irish Examiner claimed that the booklet was proof that we needed a dose of ‘common sense’ instead of ‘idealism’ – in other words, everything should be in English only.

The same problem applies to advertising, an important aspect of the information campaign about Covid-19. There are frequent full-page adverts in the national press about the latest health advice but there is no need for an Irish version because advertising was left out of the regulations linked to the Official Languages Act. Every radio station in the country carries repeated public announcements outlining the latest measures, except RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. Health information advertisements on TG4 are in English for the most part.

The daily press conferences are in English only, unless the unfortunate TG4 reporter manages to squeeze a line in Irish out of one of the public health doctors. Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach was partial to the cúpla focal, and other political leaders have done likewise during the pandemic but there is rarely more than just that – a tokenistic use of Irish. The outgoing Minister for Health Simon Harris was praised for issuing a rare tweet in Irish but should instead have been asked why his department issued so little information in Irish or indeed other languages. Interactive services can also be included in this litany of failure: in May the Language Commissioner began an investigation into the failure of the Department of Education to provide an Irish language version of the Leaving Cert portal to calculate grades.

Monolingual information in multilingual settings is not limited to Ireland. There are reports from Canada and Spain that the majority language has been to the fore in public health information about Covid-19. In Ireland, the experience since March leads me to believe that the “real” language policy is even clearer than I thought: anything more than tokenistic use of Irish is an irritant that impedes public communication at a time of crisis. Instead of planning systematically so that public health information is issued simultaneously in both languages, Irish is often forgotten. Irish language organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge or An Coimisinéir Teanga have intervened to remind public bodies of their obligations but therein lies the rub – the obligations are in black and white, but the power of the Commissioner to implement them is limited.

The Programme for Government contains a commitment to enact the revised Official Languages Bill by the end of the year, but with no sign of an end to Covid-19, it is obvious that the question of public health information in Irish needs to be addressed in the new legislation. Interactive communication systems, online information in various formats, public service advertisements and government social media should all be included; these are more important to the general public than translations of annual reports that are hardly bedtime reading. There is also a compelling case for better coordination of information in immigrant or heritage languages to make it more appropriate and accessible for the target audience, many of whom may have limited English or, in the case of some in marginalised populations, weak literacy.

There is a bigger cultural problem of the ideology of the monolingual public administration, as the state founded at least partly with the aim to restore its own minority language approaches its 100th birthday. The last century is littered with reports about the Irish language, thrown aside because they had no legal basis. The Official Languages Act is not perfect, but it at least provides a framework which can be improved upon. Although the new Minister Catherine Martin is a competent person and a fluent Irish speaker, Gaeltacht has been lumped in with five other large policy areas in her unwieldy Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, memorably described by one journalist as the “jumble drawer of the cabinet”.

With such a long list of duties, it remains to be seen if the new department will follow through on the government’s promise about new legislation. That will depend in part on public attitudes, and a challenge for the Irish-speaking minority is to convince others of the need for change, perhaps drawing on evidence from the many creative and dynamic community initiatives around Irish. There is also the question of whether the political establishment would vote for strengthened legislation which would dismantle the “real” language policy after so long, but in life after Covid-19 all sorts of interesting things are possible.

John Walsh

Dr John Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in Irish at the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. He was Vice-Dean for Research in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies 2012–2015 and is currently co-director of the Centre for Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism (CALM). He previously worked as a lecturer in Irish at DCU, with the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages in Brussels, and as a journalist with local radio, RTÉ and TG4. For a number of years he has been researching ‘new speakers’ of minority languages – people who were not raised speaking those languages but who speak them fluently and regularly. He is also interested in minority language media, language policy and the relationship between languages and socioeconomic development.