This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
A Chinese in Ireland: ItalishMagazine interviews Fang Zhang about his Irish experience
Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom (2003) is a short film about a Chinese young man ending up with a perfect Gaeilge.
Well: that’s fiction, but Fang Zhang’s story is definitely a real world one!
IM – How did you get involved with Ireland and Gaeilge? What’s the story – your story! – about that?
FZ – I did not know much about Ireland and Gaeilge (first time I know is from a small Chinese book on languages of the world; then Lonely Planet Irish Language & Culture) until 2011 when Irish Studies Centre (isc.bfsu.edu.cn), School of English and International Studies, BFSU (global.bfsu.edu.cn), has held a number of activities cooperating with Irish Embassy Beijing (I was invited to the embassy for the first time in 2011), that I started to know Ireland more comprehensively.
I used to do British/European politics, and like many other Chinese I used to believe that Ireland like many smaller European countries are less important; I was wrong.
I started to learn Irish since 2016 by myself, using Mícheál Ó Siadhail‘s Learning Irish, based on the Connemara dialect, and I found it is a beautiful and musical language.
In 2017 I was able to visit Ireland and find Ireland is a magical country with great (and also tormented) history and culture, though I didn’t hear much Irish language.
Fortunately at the 4th and final year of my PhD, in December 2017, I have received the job invitation for teaching Irish language – provided that I’m going to learn for two years in Ireland and I will start to teach Irish in BFSU from September 2020.
I passed the teaching test and interview.
Then I have applied for UCD (because of it being famous and having cooperation with BFSU, though I did think about Maynooth too) and passed.
It has been more difficult than I believe (as for all languages) but I’m trying to overcome it – particularly due to the lack of language enviroment.
IM – What are you loving of Ireland, what is very strange about Ireland from your point of view, what you don’t like?
FZ – Loving of Ireland: beautiful landscape, rich history, heritage, literary tradition, culture.
As I’m interested in language history and also Indo-European language I’m intrigued by the Irish language and its tradition. I hope I can contribute to the related research!
What is strange?
I would say like many places in Europe, Sundays and holidays are so silent in Ireland (except for central Dublin).
Particularly in December when everyone is heading home for Christmas and shops and bus services are shut down, I feel so bad.
In China, even in the Chinese New Year, all the shops and services will be open – I don’t know if this is a cultural difference!
Most Irish people don’t speak Irish.
Well, there are special places where I can learn and speak Irish, like in UCD or Gaeltacht, but not outside. I’ve met a lot of Irish people, they told me that ‘Irish is important but I hated Irish in school’, ‘I would prefer English to Irish’, ‘Your Irish is better than my Chinese!’ etc.
Compared to Malta, where most people speak Maltese and English bilingually, I feel this is deplorable – though I understand the history behind it. This caused a lot of obstacles to my Irish learning.
Sometimes Ireland is so silent compared to China, Italy and Spain where people are usually very lively.
Perhaps I need to visit pubs, but the Chinese tradition is to meet at a restaurant and talk (with or without alcohols); I usually go alone and I have more female friends than male (most of them are from the same university, as BFSU is a university generally for languages and I reckon 70-75% students are ladies).
Being unlively, I sometimes would prefer to travel to European continent.
What I don’t like about Ireland:
Food. I guess it’s not the worst but it’s not good – good food is expensive and hard to find, mundane food is everywhere. With a Chinese stomach, the best cuisine is Italian; you can’t feed yourself with sandwiches, burgers, potatoes every day – I succeeded in doing so but I can’t help visiting restaurants on weekends.
I would believe that ‘Bear with it. Another year and you’ll be going home and enjoy your food!’
I think Irish people are more shy than I thought.
I thought they must be more friendly and more lively than the British – I can feel that they are friendly but they are timid.
Usually for a whole semester or even longer I can’t make friends with young Irish people; and they could forget about me soon.
Perhaps it’s because of ‘generation gap’ (I’m 31 years old)?
Older generations are easier for me to communicate with. But I still feel that they are focused on their own lives; at least they usually don’t call me out for pubs or dinner, unlike when I was in Lancaster University in 2011/12.
It’s really hard to find friends unless if I’m attending activities, like in Dante Summer School; but even in it I found that Italian speakers are easier to go with rather than the Irish.
Being a Chinese I would prefer warmer people rather than colder (and unsocial) ones! And I feel even I became a bit less social in Ireland… Which is no good. Anyway I don’t have many friends in Ireland, except in academia.
IM – We are an “italish” site, halfway between Ireland and Italy. We know you have literary and academic connections with Italy as well, do you want to tell us something about that?
FZ – It’s mostly developed from BFSU – my first Latin teacher is Professor Michele Ferrero, the Latin/Greek professor in BFSU.
I attended his Latin class for a whole year in 2010/11 and Greek for one semester in spring 2013 (I would like to improve my Latin and Greek too!).
And since then I have a stronger interest in Italy. Michele invited me to Latin Summer School in Università Pontificia Salesiana in July 2015. I was able to visit nearly 80% of the sites in Rome, in addition to Assisi and Florence – that was unforgettable!
I visited Bologna, Venice, Padova, Milan and Genova later. I always wish to visit Italy again!
I know a lot of Chinese friends in my university who are related to Italian or perfect in Italian. There is Italian department in School of European Languages, BFSU where there is one of the best department of Italian in China; when I started to learn Italian in 2013 by myself and I used Dr Wang Jun’s textbook, Studiamo Italiano all’Università.
I know a number of Italian lecturers who have translated Orlando Furioso, I Promessi Sposi and Umberto Eco works into Chinese; a friend of mine did a PhD in Università Salesiana in Rome and went to Vivarium Novum to learn Latin for a year, and became the first Chinese lecturer of Latin in BFSU.
I know another lady who did a PhD in University of Trento, was enrolled by BFSU and is sent to Malta to learn Maltese.
The reason to learn Italian is also to understand Italy better – particularly its history and culture, like in Ireland – and so as to communicate with friends of mine in BFSU who speak and deliver research in Italian (and Latin)!
I only restarted learning Italian from the beginning of this year in UCD after a long stop for Italian (and many other languages).
I would say were I not choose Ireland, Italy could be my preference :-)
IM – Back to Gaeilge: what are the difficulties you are facing in studying it? What are your suggestions for a beginner?
Difficulties: mainly for vocabulary (as in almost all languages) to me, but not in grammar.
I understand that many people – particularly Irish people – will have difficulty in understanding Irish grammar.
But Irish is still an Indo-European language, and I started Latin and Greek much earlier than Irish (and in 2017, Sanskrit), therefore grammar is not a great problem and I’m particularly interested in its special characteristics compared with other Indo-European languages.
But vocabulary is a great problem – due to its creation of its own vocabulary and the infamiliarity, from a Chinese point of view.
I learn many languages and have found that Irish and Russian are difficult, particularly for vocabulary (and both are my favourite languages).
Suggestions: I have researched many textbooks and I don’t believe any of them are perfect for learners – but I would recommend Gaeilge gan Stró! Beginner’s Level by Éamonn Ó Dónaill (Gaelchultúr) which I feel it is best for learning basic communication skills.
I finished this book and feel it’s good enough for a beginner.
Mícheál Ó Siadhail’s Learning Irish is a good one for grammar, vocabulary and reading, but it’s using Connemara rather than standard spelling, so it’s a bit confusing for beginners – I have been making notes and changing all spellings to standard.
There is also a rare one which is possibly inaccessible: Alfred Bammesberger’s A Handbook of Irish (3 volumes, Carl Winter, Heidelberg, 1982-84), similar to Learning Irish, good for vocabulary, grammar and reading.
Another good but older textbook is Buntús Cainte, originally a RTÉ television Irish lectures series, available in 3 books with CD.
Irish Pronunciation Rules are easier than English (!) as Irish is written more regularly.
Grammar can be very tricky: I think Nancy Stenson’s Basic Irish and Intermediate Irish are good grammar guides.
Television: the best and only Irish TV channel is TG4, with its Irish language news, children programmes, quality documentary and music programmes, and the most famous soap opera, Ros na Rún. Except for the news and children’s programmes (Irish sub), other programmes are available for English subtitles; Ros na Rún is available for both Irish and English subtitles. Nearly all programmes are available for replay for a month online. Mobile App available.
Radio: RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, Raidió Rí-Rá, Raidió na Life, Raidió Fáilte etc. All available online. Suitable for more advanced learners; I can’t understand the language as mostly there are native speakers of Irish on the radio! Raidió na Gaeltachta has a lot of traditional music on air.
News website: I recommend tuairisc.ie – online Irish newspaper which has online dictionary linked to teanglann.ie for learning vocabulary. Comprehensive reports for Gaeltacht, Ireland and the world.
As it is difficult to speak Irish outside special areas, particularly in Dublin, one could try Gaelchultúr, Conradh na Gaeilge or Gael Linn for classes.
There is a monthly activity Pop Up Gaeltacht usually in Dublin but in other places; I never participated it but many recommend it, it is on Facebook. The best way is to go to the Gaeltacht; Oideas Gael at Gleann Cholm Cille, Co. Donegal is probably one of the best places (I will be going there in mid-July); NUIG has a College of Irish at An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), Co. Galway.
If you want to learn Irish by yourself, it can be very challenging but it’s not impossible: use the textbooks that I recommended above, but also find some reading materials: translations from Roald Dahl, Dracula, Peter Pan, Game of Thrones etc. could be helpful if you are interested; more difficult ones are some native stories from 19th and 20th Centuries like Séadna, An tOileánach, Peig Sayers etc. Some books are available at Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin 2, but more books available at Siopa Leabhar, Conradh na Gaeilge, Harcourt Street, Dublin 2. Oideas Gael and Gaelchultúr also have their own online Irish bookshops.
Then one could enter into the world of Early Modern Irish or even Old & Middle Irish Manuscripts, the latter of which is nearly a separate subject (Celtic Studies), connected to Medieval Irish history, Irish mythology and Christianity…
I believe that what the present Irish textbooks lack is the cultural aspects – most textbooks only provide communication or reading, which are good but could be boring.
As BFSU is planning to establish our own Irish language teaching, I will be hopefully compiling our own textbooks and dictionary.
I hope my textbook will have a Chinese edition first, then English (or other languages) edition. My textbook will be focusing on Irish culture via Irish language.
IM – You said you are using your study of Gaeilge also to get acquainted to the huge Irish mythological heritage. Did you find any similarity with Chinese stories? Any Cú Chulainn in Beijing? Any Queen Medbh within the Forbidden City’s walls..?
FZ – I don’t know much about it though I hope to learn it gradually. But I don’t see many similarities between Irish and Chinese mythology. Chinese mythology is more or less folklore and it is not often seen in official ideology or history in imperial Chinese times.
Chinese mythology has possibly unimaginable stories like Kua Fu used the arch to shoot down 8 suns, Nü Wa patched the heaven, or something else.
A best one is to read WU Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, based on the real story of Xuan Zang receiving the Buddhist Sutras from China to India via the silk road, but more mythological elements with the Monkey King wreaking havoc to the heaven, with a lot of Taoist and Buddhist elements.
There is not a comprehensive system for Chinese mythologies (as I know; maybe I’m wrong), compared with those of Hindu, Greek, Irish, Nordic etc.
IM – Are you aware of the short movie Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom (2003)?
Any comment about how the film’s story can be compared to your experience, of Gaeilge and of Ireland?
I have watched Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom many times.
I believe this film is more like a satire rather than a cultural shock, though it is featuring a Chinese learning Irish.
However, it is a fact that most Chinese people don’t even know about Ireland – they heard about Northern Ireland and IRA, many even thought that Ireland is still part of the UK, most of the people have never heard about Irish language – if they only know that Irish speak English.
Ireland, therefore, has become a forgotten zone in Chinese minds. Scarcely any people know about Irish language or Irish mythology.
Fortunately since 2007 BFSU has its own Irish Studies Centre – however Irish language was not a focus; the main focus is still Anglo-Irish literature, in addition to Irish and European politics and foreign policy.
I’m very happy that Irish language is to become more and more important subject in BFSU and in China.
As the first group of Chinese lecturer of Irish I feel responsibility to tell Chinese students that Ireland is more than Anglo-Irish literature – its history, language and cultural heritage should not be forgotten in any way.