How can tourism breathe new life into a minority language?

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The Tourism Space Weekly Article: How can tourism breathe new life into a minority language?

Language fascinates me, particularly the connections it creates between people and the places they are from:

Linguistic research has shown us that for all people (not just us Irish) our words inform our thoughts, that national identity is very tightly bound up with our language and that our language directly frames our ways of expressing ourselves and perceiving the world. Our native languages are known to be the most accurate expressions of our culture, our psyche and our national soul. While English is the first language of the majority of Irish people nowadays, if you take a time frame of 2000 years (or even just 500 years), Irish has been the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of Irish people. It has resulted in Hiberno-English, the name given to the particular type of English spoken in Ireland. (excerpt from: Cúpla Focail - For a Deeper Sense of Place)


What have Ireland and Ghana got in common?

A few years at a conference in California, USA, I sat next to a lady of about my own age who had travelled to the event from Ghana. We got chatting and became good friends over the course of the few days we spent there.  We were speaking English and we both were quite taken with the accent of the other. Her accent was such that I found myself asking ‘Is English your first language?’ She replied, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Oh yes, we were colonised’.

Her response stopped me in my tracks, very unexpectedly.

“We were colonised too” I offered in reply. “That’s why English is my first language as well.”

Our understanding of each other’s cultural heritage grew exponentially. 


Language as Identity

It struck me at that moment, not for the first time, how much of our identity is wrapped up in our native language and how much our native language embodies our uniqueness and difference in the world.  It’s an expression of our ‘intangible cultural heritage’, a concept that has gained traction in tourism in recent years. 

I live on an island where the native language of the island is no longer the first language of the majority of its people. Irish is a minority language in Ireland.  Like many other minority languages, it continues to face challenges in terms of its usage and preservation.  

Our constitution tells us that Irish is officially Ireland’s first language, with English as its second. In practice, it’s very much the other way around. Ideological support for the language is high while day-to-day usage and fluency are low. Interestingly, Irish in the Gaeltachts, those parts of Ireland where Irish is still the mother tongue, is on the decline while the use of Irish in urban areas is growing. 


What has this got to do with tourism?

Cultural heritage is the main motivation of international tourists. The UNWTO considers cultural and heritage tourism to be an important motivation for tourism consumption, accounting for approximately 40% of global tourism. The UNWTO also reports increasing interest in the living heritage of a population i.e. intangible cultural heritage and there is also growing demand for unique cultural experiences in peripheral areas.

Therefore, minority languages such as Irish can contribute to differentiating the destination and offering unique cultural experiences to visitors.  In a very noisy, travel marketplace, linguistic diversity and intangible cultural heritage can give real stand-out and appeal to the marketplace.


We know tourism has a transformative power and regenerative potential.

Can this be harnessed with the deliberate intention of sustaining and invigorating minority languages such as Irish?

So instead of asking the usual question, for example,  ‘How can we grow the visitor numbers to our Gaeltacht regions?’, we might instead ask ‘How can tourism help breathe new life into the Irish language?’.  This would then require us to find answers to questions such as :

  • What model of tourism and what kinds of visitor experiences fulfil that objective?
  • How can we connect with the type of visitor that values those experiences?
  • How can tourism experiences facilitate meaningful interactions between visitors and native speakers, promoting linguistic and cultural exchange? 


Strategic Partnerships for Language & Tourism

Interestingly, in Ireland, we have two state organisations who are tasked with asking those questions but from different angles. Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism authority, is tasked with growing tourism to fulfil GDP objectives. Údarás na Gaeltachta is the authority responsible for the protection and promotion of the Irish Language. In 2022, for the first time, they formed a strategic partnership and signed a Memorandum of Understanding detailing their commitment to align their tourism priorities.

For me, this commitment is really important as intangible cultural heritage requires constant practice if it is going to survive. Tourism can be a sustainable economic activity that plays an important role in giving minority-language communities opportunities to continue speaking the language on a daily pass and be in a position to pass it on to future generations.  


Policy and Practice

Drawing on some examples from Ireland, here are ways in which policy and practice can support minority languages through tourism:

  1. Install bi-lingual signage. all public signage is bi-lingual which covers everything from road signage to interpretive panels in publicly-owned museums and heritage sites. Road signs in particular give our placenames in their original Irish as well as the phonetically-anglicised version of the same – a world of heritage just in themselves.
  2. Support the employment of fluent tourism professionals. For example, Údarás na Gaeltachta has a Tourism Officer funding programme, that provides for the employment of Tourism Officers in the Gaeltacht regions for a defined period. The aim is that the position can become self-sustaining within a period of time by generating new income through tourism initiatives.
  3. Create public awareness campaigns that promote the minority language as a valuable cultural asset. Seachtain na Gaeilge, or Irish Language Week, takes place in March each year, around the St Patrick’s Day Festival. It’s a Government-supported festival designed to draw attention to the Irish as a cultural asset, inspire language-based events and festivities and promote its everyday use.
  4. Recognise integration of the minority language. This week, for example, The Tourism Space is shortlisted for a Marketing with Irish Award by the Marketing Institute of Ireland. This helps the perception of Irish as a normal part of business, normalising the use of language and contributing to a positive work environment.
  5.  Support the development of language-based visitor experiences
    1. Many of Ireland’s Gaeltacht regions depend on Summer Schools or Irish Colleges to boost local incomes. Typically, this has meant 3-week immersive stays for secondary school students during their summer holidays. We are seeing extensions of this type of programme – programmes for adults or for families to learn together.  
    2. Immersive activity experiences are also proving popular where the USP on offer is the ability to undertake a cultural outdoor experience through Irish. Oideas Gael in Donegal offers Irish language immersion weekends and weeks which are combined with a variety of activities such as hill-walking, basket-weaving or music. Uisce in Co. Mayo gives young people an opportunity to spend a week enjoying all kinds of water sports through Irish.
  6. Celebrate experiences that normalise the language. These are different to experiences where the language is the USP.
    1. A great example is Pota Café in Galway. It has won several Best Café awards, not because it operates and markets through Irish, but because it is a great café that happens to operate and market through Irish.
    2. Another example is how investment in a community-run, state-supported Seaweed Centre in Lettermullen in the Connemara Gaeltacht has had a ripple effect by inspiring the extension of the experience e.g. seaweed baths on the strand, guided seaweed foraging and the first ever Wellness Weekend in the area.
  7. Shift the metrics for success. To be able to recognise the regenerative power of tourism for minority languages, we would need to shift the metrics for success. Evaluation of success would include tracking visitor numbers, but also measuring the growth of language proficiency within the trade, within the younger generations in Irish-speaking areas, participation in language-based experiences and qualitative feedback from local language communities. This data would in turn guide future policy decisions, helping ensure sustained support of the minority language through tourism. 

Of course, there is much more that can be done and perhaps that’s for another article. The first priority is a create an environment where there is a long-term, mutually-beneficial commitment amongst tourism and language stakeholders to sustain and invigorate the minority language. Once that’s in place, we know it’s within our gift to find innovative ways to do even better.


Tina O'Dwyer

Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach with a particular interest in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, tourism networks and collaborations. She is also a linguist with strong command of Irish, German and French. Tina advises on regenerative approaches to tourism and has expertise in hosting and facilitating community and industry consultations and workshops that incorporate sustainable and regenerative approaches to tourism development. For more information, you can contact us at [email protected] or sign up to our weekly article for more insights here.

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