Learning languages


“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

For TOO long we have allowed to creep insidiously into the educational assumptions of this State the myth that “everyone speaks English” – simply not true of three-quarters of the world’s people. And so the State continues to languish firmly at the bottom of the EU league table of multilingualism. A Eurobarometer survey (2006) found that while 56 per cent of EU citizens say they can converse in a language other than their mother tongue, in Ireland two-thirds say they can’t speak another language.

Ireland’s abysmal record is highlighted in a recent important Royal Irish Academy report, The National Languages Strategy,which notes that the Republic is the only EU country, bar one, where a foreign language is not compulsory at any stage in the main education curriculum. And it warns that the situation is being exacerbated by the erosion of the matriculation requirement for a foreign language for NUI admission.

The report, which argues that the linguistic underperformance is affecting economic competitiveness, makes a strong and welcome case for increased language teaching to children as young as four, an increase in language teacher numbers at all levels and support for language-assistant programmes, an impostion of compulsory foreign language requirements in the curriculum and in third level access, and use of the Transition year to explore other languages.

Crucially, it’s also not just about an economic case. Language learning is essential to understanding other cultures and for a rounded education. A campaigner for language awareness Eric Hawkins once wrote that its study serves to, “emancipate the learner from parochialism”. In truth, to read in translation is to see through a glass only darkly.

At a student “raft” debate in Trinity on Thursday night academics each made the case for their discipline to be saved ahead of others. Head of the school of languages Dr Sarah Smyth spoke with passion for hers: “We survive because we are useful: useful in our ability to see in colour, in three dimensions, to speak with others as others and as equals, to avoid wars, to barter goods, to learn from other cultures, to adapt to changed circumstance, to dream of what is not, but might be, to imagine, to exchange the present for the future.”

More’s the shame, the philistines voted to save maths.