Teach someone to speak and he will master a language; teach him foreign languages and he will understand the world.
You probably have already noticed the large number of French speakers in Ireland. With more than 587,000 recognised Irish francophones, Ireland ranks among the top western European countries for the use of French. This is why we will actively celebrate the International Day of Francophonie on March 20th.
However, this heritage faces serious challenges.
The first was the decision to discontinue foreign languages as a compulsory requirement in primary schools. While numerous studies have pointed out the benefits of learning a language at a young age, this policy was reversed in Ireland in July 2012.
The second challenge comes from recent proposals to remove the requirement for a foreign language in order to gain admission to higher-education institutions.
In a globalised world of communications, exchanges and intercultural discussions, learning a foreign language is more than ever an asset.
Whether they are learnt out of sheer interest or with a clear objective, foreign languages not only broaden the minds of the learners but also decisively enhance learners’ CVs.
On March 20th, francophones all over the world, including Ireland, will gather to celebrate the French language during the International Day of Francophonie.
As the second-most-learned language and the sixth-most-spoken language worldwide, French is one of the few languages to be widely spoken on all six continents. It is spoken by more than 270 million people in 77 countries. French is not only the language of arts, culture and diplomacy, it is another language of business.
Companies, recruiters and decision-makers stress it: having command of only one language impedes young people from gaining access to a wide range of skilled jobs in a highly competitive job market.
The stakes are high. The first economic forum of the Francophonie was held in Senegal last year, and the Attali report included two clear figures: it is estimated that by 2050 there will be up to 770 million French speakers in the world and up to $7,200 billion worth of business will take place in the francophone world.
French is the official language of key international organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. It is used in international decision-making in New York, Geneva and Brussels, and also in Hanoi, Dakar, and even London, the sixth most francophone city in the world. For people working there as lawyers or for multinational companies, for example, multilingual capacity is a valuable asset. People who can switch easily from one language to the other without needing lengthy translation are always in demand.
Beyond its clear communication role, learning a foreign language is a key step to understanding the broader world in which we live. Diversifying the teaching of languages is a key element for the better understanding of our neighbours, their culture and traditions. It enriches us and our own country.
Ireland has unique potential in this respect. At present, 75 per cent of students study a foreign language for the Leaving Cert, of whom nearly 60 per cent choose French. This is possible thanks to the great work of the teachers and the secondary schools, 97 per cent of which offer French as an elective.
These figures are maintained year after year, also thanks to France’s investment in some key programmes: the assignment of 60 French assistants each year in secondary schools in Ireland; the deployment of a thorough training programme offered to the 3,000 French-language teachers in Ireland, aimed at supporting them and providing them with the latest teaching skills; and study grants in France.
Also, the network of enthusiastic Alliances Françaises and their voluntary committees play a major role in spreading French from Kilkenny to Waterford and Wexford, and from Limerick to Dublin. Alliance Française in Dublin is the third-largest in Europe, after Paris and Brussels.
Strong historical and cultural bonds, and the intensity of human and business exchange between Ireland and France, explain and justify the role of French in Ireland. Many key positions in the world, both in the public and private sectors, have been held, and new ones can be filled, by experienced Irish who are fluent francophones.
If the importance placed on French here were to lessen, it would be a loss for present and future Irish generations. Ireland today has this unique feature of being among the most francophone countries in Europe, and can therefore best seize the opportunities of tomorrow’s multilingual world, politically, economically and culturally.