The Irish Times view on languages in primary school: the earlier the better

Ireland remains the European Union member least engaged with foreign languages at primary level

Evidence shows children’s ability to absorb and use foreign languages declines from as early as six due to brain maturation and reduced neuroplasticity. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Evidence shows children’s ability to absorb and use foreign languages declines from as early as six due to brain maturation and reduced neuroplasticity. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

The decision to restore teaching of foreign languages at primary level – axed in 2012 for cost reasons – is welcome if long overdue. The budget of €200,000 is grossly inadequate, moreover, to the vital challenge of enhancing teacher-training. That’s a mere €2,000 per school in the pilot project. And does the project reflect a commitment to a real ability to converse and communicate or simply to a basic understanding?

Ireland remains the European Union member least engaged with foreign languages at primary level. In the union in 2014, 83.8 per cent of primary pupils were learning at least one foreign language, up 15 percentage points on the previous decade.

Evidence shows children’s ability to absorb and use foreign languages declines from as early as six due to brain maturation and reduced neuroplasticity. Apart from the facility in later life of being able to move and earn a living, learning of second languages before the age of five has important developmental advantages. Children use the same part of the brain to acquire that second language that they use to learn their mother tongue. Learning a second language boosts problem-solving, critical-thinking, and listening skills, in addition to improving memory, concentration, and the ability to multitask.

In most EU countries, the starting age of the first foreign language as a compulsory subject ranges from between six and eight years old, the first years of primary education. In Belgium’s German community, all children in pre-primary education start French as early as three years old. In Greece all six-year-olds have to start learning English. In Poland foreign language learning is part of pre-primary education from three.

One of the excuses for inaction – that we already teach Irish at primary level – does not wash. In the EU some 40 to 50 million people are taught and speak one of its 57 official regional and minority languages (including Irish in Northern Ireland). The ability to acquire new languages does not decline with each new one – it increases.

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