On the face of it, we have every advantage for learning languages in this State. We have a strong education system, which is respected among our peers in other nations. We have a long-running tradition of welcoming students from other European states, particularly Spain, into our homes for months at a time. We are also taught two languages, Irish and English, from the earliest days of schooling. Yet in an EU-wide survey, published during this Year of European Languages, when asked what languages they spoke apart from their mother tongue, almost 50 per cent of Irish respondents said "none".
Perhaps an even more damning statistic from the same Eurobarometer survey was that only 61 per cent of the population thought knowing a foreign language was useful, indicating that that we have the second-worst attitude to language learning in the EU after Austria (59 per cent of Austrians said knowing a foreign language was useful). We lag far behind the EU leaders in the attitudes survey - 96 per cent of Danes responded positively to the question and 74 per cent of our fellow English-speakers in Britain also said that acquiring another language would be worthwhile.
Despite our apparent advantages, not only are our language abilities as a State below par, our attitudes to language learning are also negative. With the ability to communicate a high priority for the new Europe, we need to address the question: where have we been going wrong?
"We have to look historically at it," says Joan Williams, national co-ordinator of the European Year of languages in Ireland. "Historically, foreign languages were something for the elite and were taught in a very academic way." Our location as an island nation on the edge of the continent may also be a factor, she says. "Countries in the middle of Europe have a greater motivation to learn languages."
The unique position of the Irish language in our education system cannot be discounted. Here again, history comes in to play. The century before last, Irish was beaten out of students, then during the last century attempts were made to beat it back in. The older, harsher teaching methods have fostered a deep-seated antipathy in many adults towards the national language - and even today, when students are encourage to love the language, many are still leaving school having fought the good fight but having been thoroughly "licked" by the mother tongue.
However, rather than turning people away from language learning, Dr Muiris ╙ Laoire, lecturer in languages at Tralee IT and education officer with the NCCA, says learning Irish from a young age should make the learning of a third language easier.
"Everybody here studies two languages, Irish and English, so in learning a foreign language we're learning a third language. Theoretically, we should be better off, but we're not."
The problem is that Irish is learned in isolation from other languages. The way we learn languages needs to be examined, he says.
In 1995, an EU Commission White Paper recommended the learning of two modern languages as early as possible in a child's education. Many European countries teach one foreign language from the age of about eight years the Irish education system has been slow on the uptake, but the gradual introduction of languages in primary school has begun.
In 1998, 208 schools were selected to take part in the Modern Languages in Primary School pilot project. The schools were chosen from approximately 1,300 original applicants to represent the "entire education spectrum", including rural and urban schools, special schools, disadvantaged schools and gaelscoileanna. They had four languages to choose from: French, German, Spanish and Italian. Teaching materials and assistance for schools were provided through the Kildare Education Centre.
"Before now, languages at primary-school level were extra-curricular and had to be paid for, so it was primarily the better-off who benefited. The aim of this initiative is to broaden access," says Alice Lynch, national co-ordinator for European languages.
It has already moved from being a project to an initiative and has been broadened to take in 320 schools since the start of this academic year. Eventually, Lynch hopes, it will become "part and parcel of the curriculum in primary schools".
The modern language initiative promotes an integrated approach to foreign languages, culture and to the primary curriculum as a whole. "If we're trying to promote modern languages, they can't be at odds with the rest of the curriculum... It's interactive and draws links with other subjects such as science and maths."
The second-level sector hasn't been left out of the language initiative party, but at this level the emphasis is on expanding the range of languages available. This initiative, which started in 150 schools in September 2000, is currently targeting Italian, Japanese and Spanish. Spanish has proved the most popular language, with 115 schools taking it up through the initiative, but, says Patricia Cullen, administrator of the initiative at the Marino Institute in Dublin, Japanese has been extremely well received by students.
Placing languages in a cultural context is emerging as the preferred method of teaching at both primary and secondary level. Languages can't be learned in a vacuum and motivation has been identified as the key factor.
"It's very difficult to learn a language your not interested in," says Anne Gallagher, director of the language centre at NUI Maynooth. "Eighty per cent of Leaving Cert language students are doing French, but we don't have very good connections with France or French culture."
Implementing new systems of teaching and adding to the curriculum is a complicated and costly endeavour. Grants and supplementary teaching hours have been provided for the second-level initiative and a range of measures, including visiting language teachers and postgraduate language diplomas for teachers, are being offered at primary level.
However, there are concerns that the primary system, in particular, won't be able to support such huge change. "Second-level teachers complain about the basic reading and writing skills of first-year students. Is it worth fragmenting and cramming the curriculum at primary level?" asks Gallagher.
It is also not entirely clear whether there will be enough qualified teachers to take the programme Statewide. It may, therefore, be necessary to develop a new model for teaching and learning languages that involves a new "language awareness" on behalf of the student, as ╙ Laoire explains.
"We're coming to terms with the idea that a language is not fully teachable within the classroom context," he says. "As well as teaching and exposing our learners to language, we need to equip them with skills in how to learn the language and how to seek out opportunities to use it outside the classroom."
This proposal is already taking shape in the form of the EU language portfolio. The idea is that people will assemble their language-learning experience, whether it involves classroom experience, language experience on holidays or a few words picked up from a television programme.
Tailored questions are included so learners can assess their own language experiences and take responsibility for their own learning.
The portfolio has been introduced here to children as young as 10 and the idea is that they will keep it throughout their lives.
However, most practitioners also agree that these initiatives and good practice models will not work unless a cohesive national policy is developed to encompass language learning at primary, second and third levels.
A call to Government for a language policy was made by language experts at a conference in Maynooth recently, as the "best way to serve" future language education in Ireland.