Report finds pandemic ‘severely disrupted’ North language learning

Irish ‘likely to replace French’ as the second most popular language at A-level in the next few years

A report on language trends in Northern Ireland has found that the Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted language learning in its schools.

The Language Trends Northern Ireland report was commissioned by the British Council and carried out Dr Ian Collen, Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (NICILT) at Queen's University Belfast.

Some 43 per cent of teachers reported that language teaching was “severely disrupted” by the pandemic. This was found to be particularly true in schools where a higher than average percentage of its pupils entitled to free school meals.

Over half of schools categorised as the most deprived reported that the pandemic had a ‘big impact’, whereas only 28 per cent of schools categorised as the least deprived said the same.

The research found a contrast between language learning at grammar and secondary schools with much more time spent on compulsory language learning at the former.

On average, teachers estimated 65 per cent of the Year 11 cohort in grammar schools were taking a language compared to just 23 per cent in non-grammar schools.

Over 15 per cent of the North’s primary schools, 57 per cent of post-primaries and more than 1,500 Year 9 pupils took part in the survey.

Language learning in Northern Ireland is compulsory for students at Key Stage 3 (ages 11–14), the shortest time for compulsory language learning in any country in the continent of Europe.

Of the Year 9 (age 12–13) pupils surveyed, 54 per cent found language learning online harder during lockdown than their other subjects.

Only 44 per cent of Year 9 students indicated an intention to study a language for the GCSE and just one in ten said they plan to study a language for A-level.

When respondents were asked what challenges teachers see as the greatest barriers to providing a high-quality language learning experience, teachers cited the nature and content of external exams (35.6 per cent), how external exams are marked and graded (26.1 per cent), a lack of opportunities for learners to practise their language outside the classroom (14.4 per cent), the importance of English as a world language (14.4 per cent) and the timetabling of options in Key Stage 4 (14.1 per cent).

The latest research also found that language teaching in primary schools has all but collapsed due to Covid-19 with only 15 per cent of primary schools that responded reporting that they were teaching a language.

This represents a significant fall from the 55 per cent that was recorded in 2019.

The fall, the report says, can be explained by the 38 per cent that said their usual practice of teaching a language has been temporarily suspended due to Covid-19.

Language popularity

The report also identified a shift in the popularity of individual languages.

It found that Irish is likely to replace French as the second most popular language at A-level in the next few years.

Spanish is the language that is most frequently taught in schools at A-level and if current trends continue it is believed that it will soon overtake French as the most frequently taught at GCSE-level.

According to the report, French has seen a steep decline in popularity since the turn of the millennium, while Irish has shown some slight growth.

English is the medium of instruction in the majority of schools in the north, but the Good Friday Agreement (1998) conferred a duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education.

The New Decade New Approach (NDNA) agreement which was agreed in January 2020 ahead of a restoration the North’s powersharing Executive includes as yet unmet commitments relating to language and cultural rights.

These include the appointment of two commissioners - one for Irish and the other for Ulster Scots that would recognise, support, protect and enhance the development of each language.

The Irish medium education sector continues to grow. In the school year 2019–20 the report says that some 2.6 per cent (4,510 pupils) of the primary school population received primary schooling through Irish. There are 28 Irish-medium primary schools and seven primary schools with an Irish-medium unit across the North.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí is an Irish Times journalist and editor of the Irish Times Student Hub