When I first heard of Abair Leat! a few weeks back, my initial reaction was a cynical one. “Not another attempt to create a niche Facebook,” I thought. However, after only a few moments speaking with Mícheál Ó Foighil, the man behind the Irish-language social network, it becomes immediately evident that this is no Zuckerberg wannabe, but a forward-thinking educator using the medium of our time to share his passion for his native tongue.
The Irish summer college, Coláiste Lurgan, in Indreabhán, Conamara, where Mícheál is principal, had initially developed Abair Leat with Block 5 Design as an interactive learning platform for students but, according to Mícheál they, “Always wanted to take it a step further, from learning Gaeilge, to using Gaeilge.”
The people at F.I. have, acknowledges Mícheál, “been more than generous” with their time and expertise in integrating the language-specific features required for an exclusively ‘as Gaeilge’ social network. The result is Abair Leat “Beo”, or ‘live’ while the educational platform remains as Abair Leat ‘Oide.’
The site is currently in beta at the moment, and is “ninety-one, ninety-two percent there.” Rather than simply encouraging the use of Irish, it incorporates software which monitors the use of Irish on the site, and only permits posts which are seventy percent or more Irish-language in their content.
The thirty percent leeway allows for the inclusion of some English, or any other language, and also for the use of different regional dialects. “Most native speakers would spell things in an unconventional manner,” says Mícheál.
This will also allow for the “text-speak” and abbreviations which have appeared in the English language in recent years. While some traditionalists have lamented this development in other languages, Mícheál would welcome such modifications. “It would be quite cool really.”
It seems the aim of Abair Leat is not to impose rigid grammatical standards, but to encourage and facilitate the use of Irish, with inbuilt spell-check and translate functions, and plans for a thesaurus function to follow.
“It’s really for people who would like to learn the language for its own sake more than to prepare for exams, but I suppose the more you normalise the social aspect of it, the more it’s going to benefit your academic endeavours as well.”
With a full launch planned for February 2012, Mícheál hopes that Abair Leat! will have 50,000 users by the end of its first year. He predicts a few sleepless nights between now and then, but you get the impression that he’s loving every minute of it.