Exploring Multilingualism in Ireland

Insights from a Participatory Workshop at the Mother Tongues Festival 2023

Mother Tongues Festival organized a panel discussion on Creative Approaches to Building Multilingual Communities, followed by a world-café style participatory workshop, titled “In Their Shoes”.
The workshop was designed with six tables, each representing a distinct segment of society. A host at each table guided the discussion as participants and panellists were asked to move between tables every 15 minutes over the course of an hour. Each time, they didn’t know which perspective they would encounter at the table. The workshop aimed to encourage participants to consider the challenges faced by different social groups, and offer solutions.
Sometimes being gently pushed to consider the perspective of another member of society can open up new ways of thinking, and hopefully develop greater empathy for each other as we navigate building an inclusive, modern Ireland.

What follows, it’s a compilation of notes taken by the hosts during this participatory workshop.

Six Tables – Six Perspectives

Table 1: The perspective of Children

Participants raised several points during the discussion. Parents and families often discourage the use of their mother tongue, believing it is in their children’s best interest. This lack of understanding regarding the benefits of multilingualism and maintaining linguistic identity highlights the need for more frequent and wide-reaching campaigns. Language learning can be presented as additional homework, potentially turning children away from the idea, but with the right methodology, learning a new language or heritage language can be enjoyable for children.

Participants noted that validation of language use by families and schools was essential to a child’s language development. Additionally, the fear of not being able to communicate effectively was a significant barrier. Creating a space for young people to explore and enjoy their languages was suggested as an effective way to foster language development, allowing them to find their own voice.
Lastly, the participants acknowledged that peer influence matters for school-aged children and an app designed to attract their attention could be a useful tool in promoting language learning, regardless of the family’s encouragement.

Host reflection

The participants initially struggled to put themselves in the shoes of children. However, as they talked more, they agreed that children are naturally curious and can easily make relationships in different languages. They are not as biased as the adults and less judgemental when it comes to making mistakes in grammar or pronunciation when learning and speaking a different language. The participants had an interesting discussion about how children can learn from each other and use technology to promote multilingualism in Ireland. They mentioned the Duolingo app as a good way for children to encourage each other to learn a second language.

Table 2: The perspective of a person who fears the impact of immigration

Several concerns arise from the perspective of a person with fears about the impact of immigration. One major issue is the difficulty that people in general and especially the elderly, may face in effectively communicating with individuals in the local community due to language barriers. Additionally, there is a fear that an influx of newcomers may lead to having to share scarce resources.
Another issue is the mutual fear and scepticism that may exist between immigrants and locals. Furthermore, there is a concern that different cultures may have different values, making it difficult to connect with one another. Someone mentioned the concern that immigration may dilute Irish culture, making it somehow impure. Moreover, there is the worry that other cultures may not understand the unique craic and banter that are an integral part of Irish culture. Finally, there was mention of a possible sense of insecurity about identity that may already exist before the influx of immigrants.

Would people be more open to other languages and cultures if they felt more secure in their Irish cultural identity and with the Irish language?

Table 3: The perspective of Parents

Parents may struggle to express themselves in their native language and feel pressure to conform to societal expectations. Therefore, empowering parents to embrace their language and share it with their children is crucial. Immigrant parents’ language may evoke strong emotions in their children, positive or negative, depending on the parents’ attitude towards it.
Children may also feel hesitant to stand out among their peers and develop their sense of identity. Parents often feel pressure not to speak their language in front of their children’s friends as they will be ‘embarrassed’.
To promote inclusivity and celebrate diversity, it is necessary to encourage open communication and pride in one’s language and culture.

Both parents and children can feel the weight of responsibility to maintain the language. Can it be held more lightly? Can it be seen as their special superpower?

Table 4: Thinking from the perspective of Local and National Government

The group pointed out that general people don’t consider multilingualism “their problem” and therefore, quite often it feels like the topic is not even on the government’s agenda.
However, everyone agreed that diversity and representation are the government’s responsibility. In order to do so, providing training and workshops on unconscious bias and serving diverse communities is essential. Engaging with communities and considering their needs is also necessary for multiculturalism support.

Until recently, the Irish language requirements at the civil service and government levels acted as a barrier for diverse applicants. In fact, They noted that the lack of language diversity in Irish politicians at the EU level is also problematic.
To promote positive messages about migration and multiculturalism, the government must work on making immigrant communities feel comfortable interacting with politics. Additionally, the government should address the siloing of the arts and language issues.
Allowing students to take the Leaving Cert in non-curriculum European languages (Treaty of Nice) and implementing new language modules for primary schools can be positive steps. It is crucial to recognize language capacity in communities and encourage language activity in all forms to foster positive attitudes towards languages from an early age.

Host reflection

The host facilitated three group discussions exploring the topic. Initially, participants needed prompting to put themselves in the shoes of politicians. The first group emphasized Representation, which came up repeatedly. While representing the people is the government’s role, they highlighted that the current population is not adequately represented at government and policy-making levels. The third group acknowledged the difficulties of the job for politicians, especially with the impact of social media, while also recognizing some positive steps taken recently by the governments.

Table 5: The perspective of an Arts Programmer

Host reflection

The working group initially struggled to empathize with the Arts programmer’s perspective. Therefore, the host shifted the narrative to consider the audience’s viewpoint. They emphasized common experiences rather than language differences, discussing accessibility, communication, and strategies for engaging with diverse communities.

The working group reflected on how to create inclusive art for multilingual communities, emphasizing the need to consider various identity markers beyond language. They also considered the importance of accessibility in art and how Arts Programmers should try to engage people from diverse backgrounds. To achieve this, they suggested creating a safe space, offering food, meeting people in neutral zones, and considering their needs. The group emphasized the fact that when programming, they should look for similarities rather than differences and utilise crossover experiences.
They suggested that the Arts programmers’ aim should be to create social connection and encourage creation and that, to achieve this, resources such as translators are essential. The discussion also touched on the artist’s language and the process of creation rather than the final output.

Table 6: The perspective of Teachers

The working group identified challenges and solutions for teachers in modern Ireland. One challenge is the lack of languages in the curriculum. This means that all the efforts to incorporate language learning falls on the teachers.
The group suggested embracing discomfort, exploring non-verbal skills, songs, visuals, and empowering children in their languages, by giving them responsibilities in the classrooms.
The group recommended language awareness training for all teachers, but some found the current curriculum daunting.
As tools to be used in the classroom, they also proposed using technology, providing resources and support, and learning greetings in other languages. The group emphasized creating safe spaces for students to explore their differences, suggesting organizing an intercultural week and incorporating language learning into non-language-related activities.

Host reflection

The working group found it challenging to approach the discussion from the perspective of teachers. Therefore, insights from the teachers or former teachers in the group were highly valued. The discussion primarily focused on teachers’ responsibility to ensure students’ well-being, including avoiding singling out students, promoting communication between students and teachers, and addressing language barriers and exclusionary behaviors. However, there was less emphasis on incorporating multiple languages into classroom activities, which was noteworthy.


The workshop highlighted that building multilingual communities requires a collective effort from different entities, including parents, children, governments and society. Participants shared their experiences and insights, emphasizing the importance of promoting inclusivity and diversity in Ireland. Supporting multilingual families to maintain their home language while acquiring the host country’s language is crucial, but requires stronger support from the government and society as a whole. The workshop was a positive step towards starting a conversation to build a more inclusive and diverse Ireland, where multilingualism is celebrated and valued.

Mother Tongues Festival is supported and funded by the Arts Council, South Dublin County Council, South Dublin County Tourism, Languages Connect, the French Embassy in Ireland, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Rua Red and RTÉ Supporting the Arts.

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