Modern languages at primary level are crucial


LEFTFIELD:THE MODERN Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) was first launched as a pilot project in 1998. It is designed to create a positive attitude towards language learning.

Over 27,000 children are benefiting from the opportunity to learn a modern language which not only lays the foundation for their language learning within the system, it also brings many additional benefits, including enhanced cognitive skills, an openness to new cultures and learning experiences, and enhanced literacy skills.

There are currently 545 schools teaching Italian, Spanish, German or French to their senior pupils and where staff capacity permits, to other class groups also. As all new schools joining the project in recent years must have staff capacity to deliver the programme, this has brought us to a point where 56 per cent of the teachers involved are staff-based, and are therefore of no additional cost to the Department of Education as they are delivering this programme as part of their normal week.

Modern languages lend themselves particularly well to integration right across the curriculum while also being a valuable vehicle that allows teachers to address issues such as culture, heritage, citizenship and inclusion in a very natural and holistic way.

All involved in education are very mindful of the need to enhance literacy levels but, as is testified by schools involved in the MLPSI and through independent evaluation reports, modern language provision has made a very positive contribution to literacy in schools, particularly in disadvantaged contexts. There is also a considerable bank of international research which highlights the positive contribution that additional language learning can have on literacy in the mother tongue.

Many countries have introduced more than one additional language to their primary systems and at an earlier age. Ireland and Scotland are the only countries in Europe where learning a modern language is not compulsory at any stage of the education system. The MLPSI allows Ireland to work towards fulfilling obligations in the future when hopefully all children will be able to learn more languages.

If modern language provision ceases, we will regrettably see a return to a position which prevailed pre-1998 when the only children with multilingual skills will be those from multilingual families and those who can afford to pay for the privilege.

The model for modern language provision in its current form is delivering exceptional value for money and helping children achieve valuable learning outcomes. The costs involved have decreased and the MLPSI has been congratulated on its efficient delivery of enhanced services within a decreasing budget. It is a cost-effective model which gives professional support to 545 principals, almost 500 teachers, of which over 200 are employed directly. Should the MLPSI end, this investment would be lost to the system and of course, the loss of this significant number of teaching positions would be of great regret.

In many ways, the decision to end the MLPSI comes at a time when there has never been as much momentum behind the languages agenda. IBEC, Forfás, the Expert Group for Future Skills Needs, the IDA, the RIA and even the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation have all highlighted the language skills deficit in this country which is affecting not only indigenous companies wishing to capitalise on export potential but also multinationals who have their European and international bases here.

Sustaining early modern language learning will ensure that our children have an interest in and a love of languages. As Ireland is about to assume the presidency of the European Union, we should be mindful of that if our children are to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, they should be offered the same learning opportunities as their counterparts in other European countries.

Tanya Flanagan is national co-ordinator, Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative