Speaking with one voice on languages
Why do we have such a problem with modern languages?
In theory, the learning of Irish should complement further language acquisition, but in reality, for Ireland, it doesn’t. Before the abolition of the MLPSI, just 3 per cent of Irish primary-school children were learning a modern language, compared to an EU average of 79 per cent. Roughly two-thirds of Irish postprimary students take a modern language. In the UK it is compulsory until the age of 16. By third level, uptake here has dropped again, to around 3 per cent.
A 2012 European Commission report revealed that only in Britain, Portugal, Italy and Hungary can fewer adults hold a conversation in an additional language. In Ireland, 40 per cent have a second language, but that includes those who can speak Irish. This compares with a 54 per cent EU average, but the figure is more than 90 per cent in the Netherlands and Sweden.
Brogan admits educationalists will not be able to force the Government’s hand on a modern-languages policy. The language of money is the only one that’s ever heard, and there is no shortage of companies highlighting the language deficit here. Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Oracle, PayPal and Dropbox have their Europe, Middle East and Africa headquarters here, and are all recruiting outside Ireland to fill their language needs. Amazon, IBM and Twitter have headquartered their European operations here. Currently, there are 2,000 vacancies for speakers of German in Dublin, and companies are starting to move some of their departments to eastern Europe, where they can find appropriate language skills.
This is a measurable loss to the Irish economy. What is harder to quantify is the potential growth Ireland is missing out on. Tony Donoghue of Ibec believes that Irish SMEs, particularly export companies, are the biggest losers. “The tendency among many Irish exporters is to avoid markets where language is a barrier. If we had more speakers of German, French and Spanish working in our SMEs it could open up so many doors. Over 75 per cent of the world’s population do not speak English, and only 9 per cent speak English as their first language. If we neglect to ensure adequate availability of foreign language skills in Ireland, the opportunities of this global market for our indigenous exporting companies will not be realised.”
Six year years ago the European Council’s language-policy division warned: “The main challenge for Ireland is to move away from ‘an official but lame bilingualism’ to become a truly multilingual society, where the ability to learn and use two and more languages is taken for granted and fostered at every stage of the education system and through lifelong education.”