Speaking with one voice on languages
Why do we have such a problem with modern languages?
Language class: Perrine Verniers teaches students at the Alliance Française in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Next month the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin will be home to a Babel of tongues as the many language-interest groups in Ireland come together to form a new advocacy movement for language learning.
Ireland is well behind other nations when it comes to languages, and we have no official language policy, beyond Irish, around which a movement for progress could coalesce. Modern languages are not compulsory at any stage of Irish schooling. Last year’s budget saw the abolition of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI); our first foray into early-language learning never made it past the pilot stage. Hence the One Voice for Languages movement.
“We have seen what can happen when there is State support for a subject,” says Kristin Brogan, a founder of One Voice and a lecturer in German, intercultural communication and EU projects at the Institute of Technology Tralee. “There has been a huge emphasis on science and technology over the past few years, and it has paid off in terms of uptake at postprimary and third level.”
Brogan and the One Voice group want to light a similar fire under language learning, but, she admits, there are obstacles unique to Ireland. “There is a tendency to assume English is enough, that we don’t need other languages. However, in Europe, the English language is like the European Computer Driving Licence. Everyone has it. Irish people competing for jobs in Europe are up against applicants with English, their own native language and often a third language as well.”
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is moving towards an integrated language curriculum at primary level, but the focus will be on English and Irish, with some element of language-skill learning. This, the NCCA hopes, will “establish a sound foundation for the learning of a foreign language in postprimary school. An integrated language curriculum would enable teachers to achieve learning efficiencies by explicitly drawing children’s attention to similarities and differences between their languages”.
But any hope that French, Spanish or German might find its way back into primary schools, where children are at the optimum age for new language acquisition, has been definitively extinguished.
“The decision to end the MLPSI was made in the context of a very challenging budgetary environment, where difficult decisions had to be taken,” a spokesperson for the Department of Education told the Irish Times. “The programme ended in June 2012, and there are no plans to revisit this decision.”
Irish is the second challenge to modern-language learning in Ireland. Irish-language groups will form part of One Voice, but the native tongue occupies a unique position that sets it apart from other languages in the Irish context. “We don’t want to put down Irish,” says Brogan. “It’s a can of worms nobody wants to open.”