Call to prioritise languages in schools

Thu, Oct 6, 2011, 01:00

THE ABSENCE of a coherent language-learning strategy in primary and secondary schools is damaging the State’s competitiveness internationally, according to a new report.

The National Languages Strategy document, compiled by the Royal Irish Academy’s committee for modern language, literary and culture studies, pointed out that the Republic was the only country in Europe, with the exception of Scotland, where a foreign language was not compulsory at any stage in the main education curriculum.

According to the report, Ireland has the highest proportion of citizens in the EU who say they do not know any other language apart from their native tongue.

It said an increased emphasis on language learning for children as young as four would strengthen creativity, empathy and problem-solving skills. It warned that “one of the biggest threats facing language education in Ireland is the gradual erosion of the NUI third language matriculation requirement.”

It said that if students were not required to prove a certain degree of competence in a language other than Irish and English as a requirement for attending university, it “would have serious consequences for the sustainability of languages at all levels, a situation which would ultimately undermine Ireland’s status and competitiveness in global terms”.

According to the report, the Department of Education needs to “formulate a coherent languages in education policy” and provide “adequate resources” as a matter of urgency.

Prof Maeve Conrick of the academy expressed optimism that the report would be welcomed by the Government, particularly as many of the recommendations could be implemented at little cost to the exchequer.

“While we would like to see greater emphasis placed on teacher training and would love to be able to equip schools with the latest computer-aided language learning technology, we don’t expect a huge investment to be made available,” she said.

“All the research shows that the earlier you start learning a language the better you are at it,” she said, and added that there were ways of “rejigging the system” to facilitate classes during the regular school day.

She said the research showed that language learning was linked to enhanced skills, including greater empathy and creativity and improved problem solving, “all of which are essential when it comes to innovation”.

She said that while it would be easier to introduce French into the system because more graduates had competency in that language, it did not really matter which languages students were taught.

“There are real and tangible benefits irrespective of what the language being taught is,” Prof Conrick said.

STRONG LANGUAGE: THE WORD ON THE STREET

Michele Harnett, Rathcoole, Co Dublin: I think it’s an advantage to have a second language, at least. I always thought that having another language was an asset. And sometimes the only way you can get people to learn them is if it’s compulsory.

Catrina Scullion, music teacher from Ballymena, Co Antrim, lives in DublinI’m an opera singer so I should have better languages but to sing I can understand Italian and German but I wouldn’t be able to speak them. If there had been better language facilities in school then I might have had a little bit more than just the conversational French.

Sam Mulcahy, Blackrock, Dublin, TCD student:It’s a bit of a leap having to take on a third language after Irish and English, it’s a bit of a leap in secondary school unless you have an interest in it [but] I would definitely encourage it, for travel, for understanding culture better.

Tim Cahill, Glenageary, Dublin, English student at TCD:I would have liked to have been taught from the age of eight or so. I didn’t actually start until I was nearer 13.”

Elizabeth Conroy, Golden Bridge, Dublin:I think for business perhaps, especially when dealing with other countries, it’s easier if you want to do business with them to speak their language. I know a lot speak English but maybe if you’re looking for the business it’s better if you speak their language.

Vera Kilshaw, Chapelizod, Dublin:It’s always handy to have another language, isn’t it? I learned French but I wouldn’t be able to speak it.

“From the beginning, I say, from primary school. Introduce it in primary school.