What’s in a name?

A couple of years ago, I had a group of ten students ranging from 6-7 years old in the class taking their first steps in the English language. Without me prompting it – it must have come from either friends, their parents or another one of their teachers, two of them wanted to go the whole school year using their English names. That is, their names translated from Spanish into English for the sake of their language class. So instead of Juan I had John, and Alejandro wanted to be known as Alexander. Fair enough I thought, and carried on with the year giving it no further thought. They probably wanted to use more English in class and made a connection with the language when they walked into my room. That class started in September 2017, and I’m thinking about it again. Why? Because that name change wasn’t just to use more English language in class was it? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it was to identify more with one language, and leave their native Spanish identity at the door…

I hadn’t actually connected the two before, which sounds stupid considering I’m from an island where, for one single city in the north, we have nearly 400 names (slight exaggeration) and people (mainly Belfastians) get infuriated when you call it the wrong thing. My usual joke is it’s the only word in the English language with six silent letters in its name. It’s called Derry in English, Doire in Irish, let’s leave it at that.

Back in 2017, like now, I like to bring culture into the classroom. For example a celebration of Irish or Spanish/Italian/Arabic culture through the use of English language and students presenting, showing off and being proud of their roots and showing this in an L2. But I hadn’t made the connection of linking language with identity as such. My head was probably too academic when in the classroom, too keen to get across a new grammar point, or helping students overcome a particular part of their target exam. I’d never taken the time to consider what it meant when you connect language to identity.

Most of the students I’ve had in the past are learning English either to improve their current employability prospects, achieve a higher grade in school or university, or to enable some to move country. It simply was their, and is our, lingua franca, their means of communication.
In the past I learned Spanish because I lived there. I picked up some Italian because I lived there although there was a global pandemic on the go, so there wasn’t much socialising, and some Norwegian for the craic because I was watching a lot of Norwegian TV during said pandemic and it simply sounded cool. I never had any connection to these languages apart from pure necessity. I didn’t connect with the language on any form of deeper level because I only ever seen it as something I needed to live – even after getting to around C1 level in Spanish, it was still just necessity.

Then I started to learn Irish.

And only then did I realise what it meant to connect language to identity.

Just to explain at this point – during primary and high school in the area I grew up, languages were simply not taught and the concept of someone speaking anything other than English did not exist. At the age of 12 our high school started to teach French and German, and at the age of 14 you drop one and study the remaining one for GCSE (exam at 16), generally 16 is the last time you speak another language as you studied other subjects for A Level and university. Irish was not taught. At all. Not in the area I grew up in and still wouldn’t be spoken at all (or even mentioned), in fact, if it was, it might not be the smartest idea in the world for safety reasons. Sadly it gets used as a weapon by politicians who enjoy living in the past. But that’s a whole other thing…moving on…

The concept of identity through language starts to make more sense when you have a deeper connection to a language. A good starting point for anyone wanting to know what I’m talking about is Manchan Megán’s 32 Words for a Field in which he talks about how our language is much more descriptive than English in reference to the land, animals, wildlife, weather and all other forms of life – and how it views the world in an older but more logical way. The music, literature, poetry, and sean-nós singing (literally translates as ‘the old way’) gives the language more …’oomph’ for a better word, and from a personal standpoint, the folklore and old ways of the seanchaí make much more sense in Irish than they ever do or did in English. Even the understanding of the mythology, the old gods, the pre-Christian Éire, how we got here and who we are makes much more sense seen through the Irish language.

I was in a class the other night, and Seán Ó Tarpaigh, of Ros na Rún fame, was a special guest speaker. He was discussing simple ways in which we can make use of, and make others aware of the Irish language in our every day, even if we are not using it to converse, especially in the east of the island. It can be from simple things like saying dia duit instead of hello, go raibh maith agat instead of thank you and slán instead of goodbye. Short, lexical chunks when dealing in every day English to simply throw Irish in there and make it come more alive.
He brought up a very interesting point, in that we should stop anglicising our names, our places, our towns, villages, countryside and cities. That doesn’t mean do what some muppet did a few years back when he went around Ireland and translated all the anglicised names into Irish, as he got most of them wrong – Portstewart is definitely not Port Stíobhaird, it was originally and still is Port na Binne Uaine which means Port of the Green Cliffs. Seán Ó Tarpaigh meant we should go back to our names as Gaeilge, as they should be, and use what should be our native language to express and explain ourselves.

This is why I was thinking of those two students again recently – they renamed themselves in English class as they wanted to identify as something different. Whereas in Ireland now, we are going back to our roots more and embracing our Gaeilge side more and wanting to identify with that. Seán Ó Tarpaigh himself said he changed his name by deed poll when he was younger to something more Irish than his anglicised name as that gave him his identity back.
Maybe one day these posts on this website will come from Ailéin Mac Cathail. It’s something to consider on the language learning journey, especially when it’s one of identification as well.


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