Speaking with one voice on languages

Why do we have such a problem with modern languages?

Next month the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin will be home to a Babel of tongues as the many language-interest groups in Ireland come together to form a new advocacy movement for language learning.

Ireland is well behind other nations when it comes to languages, and we have no official language policy, beyond Irish, around which a movement for progress could coalesce. Modern languages are not compulsory at any stage of Irish schooling. Last year’s budget saw the abolition of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI); our first foray into early-language learning never made it past the pilot stage. Hence the One Voice for Languages movement.

“We have seen what can happen when there is State support for a subject,” says Kristin Brogan, a founder of One Voice and a lecturer in German, intercultural communication and EU projects at the Institute of Technology Tralee. “There has been a huge emphasis on science and technology over the past few years, and it has paid off in terms of uptake at postprimary and third level.”

Brogan and the One Voice group want to light a similar fire under language learning, but, she admits, there are obstacles unique to Ireland. “There is a tendency to assume English is enough, that we don’t need other languages. However, in Europe, the English language is like the European Computer Driving Licence. Everyone has it. Irish people competing for jobs in Europe are up against applicants with English, their own native language and often a third language as well.”


The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is moving towards an integrated language curriculum at primary level, but the focus will be on English and Irish, with some element of language-skill learning. This, the NCCA hopes, will “establish a sound foundation for the learning of a foreign language in postprimary school. An integrated language curriculum would enable teachers to achieve learning efficiencies by explicitly drawing children’s attention to similarities and differences between their languages”.

But any hope that French, Spanish or German might find its way back into primary schools, where children are at the optimum age for new language acquisition, has been definitively extinguished.

"The decision to end the MLPSI was made in the context of a very challenging budgetary environment, where difficult decisions had to be taken," a spokesperson for the Department of Education told the Irish Times. "The programme ended in June 2012, and there are no plans to revisit this decision."

Irish-language lobby
Irish is the second challenge to modern-language learning in Ireland. Irish-language groups will form part of One Voice, but the native tongue occupies a unique position that sets it apart from other languages in the Irish context. "We don't want to put down Irish," says Brogan. "It's a can of worms nobody wants to open."

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.”

Mickael Lenglet of the Alliance Française says that although there is more to gain from language learning than boosted job prospects, the Irish will not be at the races at all if we don’t catch up in this area. “Ireland is the only European country not to have compulsory teaching of a foreign language in primary school. Being bilingual in business is normal; a third language will soon be unavoidable. How can Irish people meet the expectations abroad, or in the Irish market, if their knowledge of foreign languages is behind the rest of Europe?”

The UK is working on modern-language uptake
Part of our complacency around foreign-language learning in Ireland is down to the fact that we use English, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

But even our nearest neighbour, the most native of English speakers, is starting to recognise what it’s missing out on by languishing at the bottom of the modern- languages league.

In 1988 the UK government made a second language compulsory at lower second level, and modern languages are now taught in most primary schools. Despite this, the UK has a stubbornly low level of proficiency. This month the European Commission hosted a conference, ‘No Island Is an Island: European Perspectives on Language Learning in Britain’.

According to the event organisers, the UK has the worst foreign-language skills in Europe – worse than in Ireland, where 40 per cent of the population can hold a conversation in two languages, if you include Irish. The thinking in the UK now is that limited language abilities and cultural awareness are acting in effect as a tax on UK trade.

The UK government has decided to grab this one by the throat and place language learning on a robust policy footing. Last year its department of education announced its intention to make languages compulsory at key stage 2 (children between seven and 11). In February the government published its proposals for the national curriculum in key stages 2 and 3 (lower secondary), setting high standards for achievement in modern languages. It’s a move worth watching here, where we do not currently prioritise modern-language learning at all.