Irish students lost in translation


Ireland is miles behind when it comes to foreign language skills – a major drawback for students and the economy

THE BANK of alternate words for saying “hello” and “goodbye” among the majority of Irish people is often limited to “bonjour” and “au revoir”. Exporters, investors and educationalists blame our limited word bank on a “historical hangover” with French.

But now it is becoming clear that a country with conservative foreign language ambitions must latch on to emerging trends, stockpile the language bank and exchange pleasantries – and much more – in a variety of languages.

Russian, Chinese and Spanish have become the second language of choice for schoolgoers world-over as countries seek to tap into the markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Ireland is miles behind. Here, French remains the language of choice for 26,766 (49 per cent) of Leaving Cert students this year, even though France is not one of our major trading partners and French does not appear in the top 10 most commonly spoken languages globally.

At a time when the Germans are propping up the Irish financial system and bidding to exert their European influence, just 6,955 (13 per cent) Irish students took the subject in 2011. Overall, only 8 per cent of pupils in Ireland learn two or more languages compared with a European average of more than 60 per cent, according to Eurostat figures.

Google’s headquarters in Dublin, which employs more than 1,500 people and a sales team that deals with 56 countries, places major emphasis on employing people who have a “high degree of proficiency to the level of a native speaker” according to Google’s European boss, John Herlihy.

The requirement for foreign languages in Google is primarily in the advertising, sales and customer support teams, where they have more than 1,500 people employed. Google has positions available on its Danish, French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Swedish and Portuguese teams. “There is no doubt that the proficiency in languages is relatively low [in Ireland] with a concentration on a few key languages such as French, Spanish and German.

More than 50 per cent of students who sat a language exam in the Leaving Certificate last year took French, even though France is not our largest trading partner and the language is spoken in relatively few countries,” Herlihy says.

“There is a huge opportunity for Ireland if we can adapt our education system to allow for the studying of more languages. Indeed, we need to do so if we are to be a truly open economy operating in the global economy.”

He says it is “worrying” that Ireland is the only country in Europe (along with Scotland) where a foreign language is not compulsory at any stage of the mainstream education curriculum.

Orna Holland, EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) staffing manager at Facebook, says 75 per cent of their users are based outside of the United States, making multilingual and multicultural skills essential. “We believe that Irish students should be encouraged to consider language skills as a complement, if not core, to whatever course of study they embark upon,” she says.

Relatively obscure languages, such as Slovakian and Latvian, are offered at Leaving Cert level, while Mandarin Chinese, the most commonly spoken language in the world, is not on the curriculum.

Deirdre McPartlin, manager of the Dusseldorf office in Enterprise Ireland, is among those concerned at the language trends here. “The lack of people with German language skills in our exporting companies is a major contributing factor to why we have never managed to fully exploit the opportunity the market affords,” says Mc Partlin.

With so much focus directed at promoting science and maths in recent years, the area of language skills has struggled to command the same attention. At the heart of the complacency is a misconception that globalisation simply means that everyone need only speak English.

In reality, however, languages enable someone to research their market, understand the local factors, interpret the moves of competitors and appreciate the cultural nuances in a country.

The European Council’s Language Policy Division recently laid out in stark terms for Ireland that the main challenge for this country is to move away from “an official but lame bilingualism” and become a truly multilingual society. Two weeks ago, the newly published National Languages Strategy bluntly stated that Ireland is the only country in Europe, other than Scotland, where a foreign language is not compulsory at any stage of the mainstream educational curriculum.

“The lack of coherent language policies at both institutional and national levels means that Irish citizens are often denied high-quality language-learning experiences and opportunities,” the report stated.

Tony Donohoe of IBEC says people simply prefer to buy goods and services in their own language. And the fact that Ireland is now one of the largest exporters per capita of internationally traded services in the world makes this a particular issue.

Of the 339 companies that participated in IBEC’s 2010 Education and Skills Survey, more than 10 per cent identified languages as an area in which they are likely to experience an “occupational skills gap” in the coming two-year period.

“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 will not be realised,” says Donohoe.

Anecdotal evidence persists that some Leaving Cert students have difficulty in transferring a foreign language from the textbook into the spoken word. This should not surprise as students in Ireland start learning foreign languages relatively late, giving students less time to build competence.

Overall, the situation is bleak. Students can score an A in a higher level language subject in the Leaving Cert without any real fluency in the language. The oral component of language learning is still underplayed. And the appetite for change in schools and in the Department of Education does not match that in the wider society and in the economy.

Nous adorons: THE FAVOURITES

FRENCHis top of the foreign languages league in Ireland. The numbers studying the language in 2011 reached 26,766. It hit a peak in 2004 when 31,434 students sat the subject for the Leaving Cert.

GERMANcomes in second – 6,955 Leaving Cert students took the subject this year. It reached a peak in 1997 with some 11,385 taking the exam.

SPANISHis in a distant third place with just 3,645 students. It has steadily risen since 2004 when 1,755 students took the subject.

ITALIANattracted 292 students this year.

DUTCHattracted just 29 students.

The overall pattern is the same at Junior Cert level, with French way ahead with more than 30,000 students, German with more than 9,000, Italy with just over 300 and Spanish with over 5,600.


Ireland languishes at the bottom of Eurostat league tables when it comes to the average number of foreign languages studied in primary and secondary school.

- Almost one in five secondary pupils do not learn any foreign language in Ireland.

- Two or more foreign languages are studied by secondary pupils in the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland.

- Only 8 per cent of pupils in Ireland learn two or more languages compared with a European average of more than 60 per cent. European countries have more than seven times as many pupils learning two or more foreign languages.


... according to the National Languages Strategy:

1Formal external assessment of oral proficiency made compulsory for modern languages at Junior Certificate level

2Advanced proficiency in a third language be made a universal requirement.

3 The optional transition year offered in more than 70 per cent of schools should be used to explore at least one language and culture not already encountered at Junior Cert.

4Sufficient resources be provided to enable the continuation of language assistantship exchanges at third level.

5A number of key Irish public figures (from politics, sport, business, entertainment) with multilingual skills be identified as language ambassadors who could be used to showcase the benefits of plurilingualism for Irish people.