Ireland and the Francophonie
Sir, – It was with great interest that I read Ruadhán Mac Cormaic’s article “Ireland’s Francophonie embrace is inadequate” (Opinion & Analysis, November 3rd).
While I am sure that the author’s view that Ireland’s interest in the Francophonie is driven by purely pragmatic considerations is correct, other member countries like Greece are unlikely to have more French speakers than Ireland.
Considering the fact that the majority of Irish school children learn French as their first foreign language; that so many Irish towns have twin towns in Brittany, in particular; and that France is such a popular holiday destination, there is a strong case for joining up. The soft benefits of improved relations with France and other French-speaking countries cannot be underestimated.
I am not sure that such a major shift in thinking is required to get more Irish people using French. Travelling around the world I have been party on many occasions to conversations where Irish people used French as far as they could. I have seen Irish rugby players, like Ronan O’Gara when still in a Munster jersey, give interviews in French on television. Of course the people willing to speak French are a minority but realistically you need to have about a B1 level to be reasonably comfortable in a language so only a minority are likely to have had adequate exposure.
Anecdotally most of those I have known who are willing and able to speak French are also capable in Irish. From that point of view the author’s point about the initial linguistic advantage bestowed by learning Irish in primary school is very valid.
Unfortunately the discussion around languages in Ireland tends towards the simplistic and incorrect idea that children can and should master “useful” languages purely within the confines of the school system. The reality is that engaging with languages naturally and actively outside of the classroom is key. If that process starts with Irish then the hurdle to speak French (or other foreign languages) as a teenager and young adult is significantly lower. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Ruadhán Mac Cormaic in his thoughtful and interesting article on Ireland’s membership of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie argues that “Francophonie membership could have been used to make a far broader case for fixing Ireland’s chronic problem with languages”.
There are three steps to fixing this problem, all eminently feasible.
The first is the immediate restoration and expansion of the highly successful Modern Languages in Primary School initiative abandoned in 2012. Children are natural linguists. Taking advantage of their well-documented ability to absorb languages at an early age means that they can rapidly acquire language competence that will stand to them in later life. Why ignore the most promising period in a child’s language-learning career?
The second step is to fully resource the excellent Languages Connect policy document. The Government’s policy for the promotion of foreign language acquisition at second level contains many worthwhile and far-seeing ideas about improving the competence of the school-going population in modern languages.
However, unless the resources are made available to fund the initiatives, the result will be cynicism and indifference.
As we move towards a post-Brexit future, fully funding Languages Connect should be made an urgent national priority.
A third step would be the appointment of experts from university languages departments in Ireland to the Foreign Languages Advisory Group (Flag) in the Department of Education and Skills which is overseeing the implementation of the Languages Connect policy. At present, there is no such representation.
If we want to ensure that money is wisely spent and to the maximum educational benefit of our schoolgoers, we need the internationally renowned language-teaching expertise of scholars working in Irish third-level institutions.
These three simple steps ensuring a continuous and coherent development of language competence across the three levels of Irish education would transform our language learning landscape and allow Ireland to embrace to the full the opportunities of a post-Brexit world.
MICHAEL CRONIN, MRIA
Professor of French,
Trinity College Dublin,