Why is the quality of our multilingual graduates so poor?

The education system is struggling to meet the demand for skilled language graduates

Employers’ group Ibec has repeatedly warned about a shortage of skilled language graduates. Photograph: iStock

Employers’ group Ibec has repeatedly warned about a shortage of skilled language graduates. Photograph: iStock

 

For many Irish people of a certain vintage, France was an exotic overseas destination. Parents packed the kids into the car, drove on to the ferry and went to a campsite in Normandy.

On Wednesday, almost half – 46 per cent – of Leaving Certificate students sat Leaving Cert French, compared with the 14 per cent who sat German and the 13 per cent who sat Spanish.

Those numbers have stayed fairly steady over the decades, although the popularity of Spanish – the world’s third-most-spoken language – is growing.

At the same time employers are crying out for skilled language graduates, but our education system is struggling to meet demand.

“Historically, French has been the language to learn, and this goes back to the 1950s, when the Alliance Française established a presence in Ireland, ” says Elizabeth Hayes-Lynn, director of frenchnotes.ie and a teacher at CBS Sexton Street in Limerick.

“It was the official language of the EU as well as bodies like the UN, Nato and the International Red Cross, and it is useful for work in the EU. It is the language of diplomacy, because it tends to have the exact words needed. As well as this, so many English words have their root in French.”

French is still useful for going on holidays and for jobs. If a person can join a company with French, they are a big asset

Natasha Lynch, director of essentialfrench.ie, says schools have historically employed French teachers and had well-developed French departments.

“If you go to Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands, people generally have very good English, whereas only around 30 per cent of French people have English and the quality of their English isn’t great.

“French is still useful for going on holidays and for jobs. If a person can join a company with French, they are a big asset.”

And yet, the volume and quality of language graduates leaves a lot to be desired.

Employers’ group Ibec has repeatedly warned about a shortage of skilled language graduates.

School’s out

From 1998 the State funded the Modern Languages in Primary School initiative, which reached more than 500 schools across the country. It was axed in 2012 at the height of the recession.

Volumes of international evidence clearly indicate that the younger a person starts learning a language, the better; children are neurologically wired to be language sponges.

Shelving the initiative inevitably means children are exposed to less language and, inevitably, will not perform as well on average.

“We saw students who had been exposed to French through this and they were streets ahead,” says Ms Lynch.

Hayes-Lynn adds that there were problems securing enough teachers to deliver the programme, which put it under further strain.

At second level, Ms Hayes-Lynn says that the enthusiasm for language learning has been “somewhat dampened” by problems with the teaching of Irish, and she is clear that it should be introduced at primary school. She adds that the Government has underinvested in language learning.

Privately officials express concern about where a European language would fit in the primary curriculum 

The primary-school curriculum is currently being reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment; the time allocated for modern European languages will form a part of this.

Privately officials express concern about where a European language would fit in the primary curriculum and which languages to include – if kids learn Spanish at primary level but the secondary school offers only French, how can that be squared?

But if we are going to develop the number of European-language speakers that we need, we will have to find a way.

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