Schools need to vary language teaching amid ‘predominance of French’, report suggests

Education consultation paper is aimed at creating a new languages strategy by 2015

The number of students studying a third language is declining year on year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

The number of students studying a third language is declining year on year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

About 70 per cent of second-level students study a foreign language up to Leaving Certificate level but the number studying a third is “declining year on year”, the Department of Education has warned.

Publishing a consultation document today on developing a new languages strategy, the Department cites an over-reliance on French as an option within schools.

“An additional concern is that fewer students than in the past are now choosing to study two foreign languages, and in some schools it is not possible to do so.”

Submissions are being sought from stakeholders in education and industry with a view to designing a languages strategy by next summer.

The initiative is part of the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs 2014, the consultation document stresses the need to develop language skills for emerging or growing markets such as China.

It notes: “One of the features of language provision and uptake at post-primary level is the predominance of French, mainly due to historical factors. Greater diversification of foreign language provision in post-primary schools is essential in order to meet the present and future needs of individuals and of society as a whole.”

The document suggests reforms are necessary from pre-school years upwards, noting “the early years (0 to 6 years) are a crucial time in a child’s language formation”.

At primary level, the main focus is on developing literacy and numeracy skills through English and Irish. The feasibility of introducing a modern European language was explored through the Modern Languages in Primary School Initiative (MLPSI), established in 1998 but a decision was made to end the programme in 2012 in light of concerns about curriculum overload.

At secondary level, the report points out that while Irish and English are taught to almost all students, the learning of other foreign languages are optional. “In this, Ireland is almost unique in Europe.”

It says the introduction of the reformed junior cycle would open up new opportunities for learning other foreign languages. Short courses in Polish and Mandarin Chinese are planed, although these have been put on hold for now due to the Department’s dispute with teachers’ unions over the new junior cycle.

“There is also a worrying tendency for some students not to take any foreign language at all,” the report adds.

“There is a need to raise the awareness of parents, guidance counsellors, school principals and students themselves of the importance of languages, including foreign languages, as a life skill for all, and not just for those with a particular aptitude for languages.”

The document also suggests reforms in further and higher education, and greater take-up of foreign exchange programmes. It points to a Higher Education Authority report saying that “programmes (in the higher education system) which provide knowledge about other parts of the world are limited … (and) in addition to the relatively low take-up in foreign languages the number of languages that can be studied is limited”.

The Department also points out that Irish citizens lag behind most of their European counterparts as regards foreign language competence. In 2012, Ireland was found to have one of the lowest percentages in Europe of citizens who were able to hold a conversation in at least one foreign language - 40 per cent, compared with an average of 54 per cent. Only the UK, Portugal, Italy and Hungary scored lower.

And it notes employers have cited a shortage of graduates in languages, such as Chinese, Spanish and German, saying this could threaten Ireland’s competitiveness.

Stakeholders are asked in the paper for their views in a number of areas, including how to support migrant families, how to improve teaching and learning methods, and what role employers have to play.

The report can be found at www.education.ie and submissions can be made up to the end of October 2014 by emailing completed surveys to foreignlanguages@education.gov.ie