Earlier in the semester, Notre Dame found itself at the center of Irish culture in Dublin as the football team took on Navy to kick off the season. Media coverage focused on the relationship between Ireland and Notre Dame; Celtic and Fighting Irish iconography were melded together, culminating in the famed Dame Street being assigned the prefix “Notre” for the weekend. While the spectacle provided a unique vantage point on our relationship with Ireland and “the Irish,” the breadth of the country’s rich history and culture could not all be compounded in one short weekend. However, the first of this year’s Irish FLTAs, Shauna Ní Dhochartaigh, is here to help expand that conversation and offer her own insights and perspectives to our campus community.
Most Americans are surprised to learn that “Irish” isn’t just a way to describe the people who live in Ireland; it’s the mother language of Ireland (and no, not just English with an Irish accent). It’s a language that existed long before the English language was introduced to the land in the twelfth century. Shauna hails from the small village of Rann Na Feirste and grew up speaking Irish. In fact, it was the only language spoken in her 350-person village. This meant speaking Irish at home and in school. After a lifetime of Irish exposure, despite an interest in the sciences at university, her identity became intertwined with the Irish language and culture and she knew she needed to continue to pursue it at a higher level. At the University of Galway, her focus on the Irish language and her role in the Irish language club helped develop her early interest in language education. She pursued teaching opportunities for younger students, which later led her to offer personal tutoring classes online.
Before arriving at the University of Notre Dame, Shauna finished her degree in Irish and History at the University of Galway. Her summer between completing her own studies and her stateside arrival was spent checking items off of her bucket list, including activities like exploring Kanamara, the Irish-speaking portion of Galway, and becoming debate champion at Oireachtas na Samhna which she described as “Irish Coachella.”
Now at Notre Dame, she is working with another Irish FLTA, Niall Páirc, to teach Irish language and culture to our campus community. This semester, this includes assisting classes of Irish dance and traditional music, in addition to supplementary tutoring in the CSLC peer tutoring program. She has also become involved in the Gaelic Football Club, which led to her first experience playing the sport despite a lifetime of spectatorship. Other weekly activities include cultural presentations around campus, as well as supporting her fellow FLTA’s cultural presentations. Because this is Shauna’s first time in the US, she has also made a concerted effort to explore South Bend and the surrounding region with the goal of immersion in the American experience.
When questioned about the importance of learning a second language, Shauna was quick to say that she didn’t have the vocabulary in any language to explain its importance without underselling its value. Despite this difficulty, Shauna explained language education’s importance because of the role it plays in fostering empathy and understanding between different cultures, an undervalued yet extremely important quality in today’s world. The process of learning a language also provides education about the speakers of that language, the peoples’ culture, history, and way of living. Very frequently, this contextualizing information challenges you and your way of thinking, exposing you to new perspectives and encouraging authentic engagement with these new perspectives through their language. This process naturally lends itself to creating open and curious minds.
Despite its importance, learning a second language is not easy, and Shauna was quick to empathize with struggling language learners as she is currently enrolled in French classes on campus. In her French education, she tries to move beyond the structure of the classroom and give herself real-world opportunities to use the language. When you cannot surround yourself with native speakers, this can take many forms, including social media accounts, watching Netflix, listening to podcasts, or reading the morning news. This exposure not only helps give real-world experience, but also shows you that language is a fluid process that does not always follow the rigidity experienced in class. Language is about communication, not perfection. Perhaps this is explained most eloquently through an Irish proverb Shauna shared: It is better to speak broken Irish than clever English.
About the CSLC
The Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC) aims to support language learners at ND by facilitating meaningful experiences with linguistic acquisition and exchange - both in our campus community and abroad. We believe that access to the world's languages and cultures allows us to seek out new perspectives, to value the diversity of the world's cultures, and to embody global citizenship.