Globalization, language and national identity: The case of Ireland

David Singleton (Trinity College Dublin)

Most dimensions of the current phenomenon of globalization (cf. Chase-Dunn 1989) directly or indirectly involve language and languages - to the extent that some researchers are now speaking of a "new linguistic world order" (see, e.g., Aronin & Singleton forthcoming; Fishman 1998; Maurais 2003). In the Republic of Ireland language issues have traditionally been linked to the definition of Irish identity. Although English is the L1 of the vast majority of the population of the Republic, its Constitution provides that the Irish language, as the national language, is the first official language, and recognizes the English language only as a second official language. Since the foundation of the Irish State strenuous efforts have been made to support Irish in Irish-speaking areas (the Gaeltacht ) and to revive it elsewhere through the education system. However, these efforts have not met with huge success. The story of Irish in the Gaeltacht is one of steady decline, as the Gaeltacht Minister, Mr Éamon Ó Cuív, himself recently admitted (speech of January 31, 2004), and the teaching of Irish as an L2 in schools is widely regarded as a failure - even by the Irish language commissioner, Mr Seán Ó Cuirreain ( Sunday Times - Ireland , March 20, 2005).

The connection between the Irish language and Irish identity has, therefore, already been under threat for some time. A new challenge confronting this connection is posed by the migration into Ireland, under the impetus of globalization, of large numbers of speakers of languages such as Mandarin, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian. There are, for example, very probably more native speakers of Mandarin and Polish in Ireland than native speakers of Irish. The fact that significant numbers of individuals living and working in Ireland and identifying it as their home have no entrée into the Irish language or Gaelic culture is having a profound effect on the conceptualization of Irishness and the part played by the Irish language in that conceptualization.

This paper will begin with a brief general exploration of the impact of globalization on patterns of language use. It will then consider the relationship of the Irish language to notions of Irish identity and the fortunes of the Irish language. Finally it will examine the effect on the traditional understanding of Irish identity of the fact that a substantial minority of the Irish population is enthusiastic about Ireland but has no experience of (and little interest in) the Irish language.


Aronin, L. & Singleton, D. (forthcoming) Multilingualism as a new linguistic world order. Paper to be presented at the Sociolinguistics Symposium. Limerick, July 2006.

Chase -Dunn, C. (1989) Global Formation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fishman, J.A. (1998) The new linguistic order. Foreign Policy (Winter), 1998-1999.

Maurais, J. (2003) Towards a new linguistic world order. In J. Maurais & M. Morris (eds) Languages in a Globalizing World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13-36.