The importance of foreign languages
Sir, – We write in response to the recent report (“Foreign language for college may be ended”, Home News, May 26th) on Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s comments on foreign languages in the Leaving Certificate curriculum. Since taking office, the Minister is to be commended for his recognition that the Points system has led to a superficial school leaving exam that encourages rote learning at the expense of critical thinking. However, it is deeply disappointing that his approach to the learning of European languages is less insightful. Indeed, the Minister indicates that he is considering the possibility of dispensing with the compulsory requirement for what we might call “core” European languages.
This would be an entirely retrograde step. At a time when lreland’s interdependence within the European Union is greater than ever before, accepting an inability of our citizens to understand their European neighbours would be politically inadvisable to say the least. Internally, it would foster the same grim parochialism from which lreland has only very recently emerged.
lndeed, in a country that has become more multilingual over the past decade, and the better for it, any decision to end the foreign language requirement as well as rule out mandatory foreign languages at primary schools, would be all the more deplorable and would fly in the face of EU language policy.
The Minister is correct in acknowledging the need for science subjects to be studied in lreland. However, he is wholly incorrect in thinking that learning a European language would somehow stand in the way of this. After all, scientists elsewhere in the European and wider world seem perfectly able to combine language learning with being scientists. Favouring Chinese, as the Minister suggests over French, German, Spanish, ltalian and Portuguese, will not solve our problems. lt will not make us better scientists, better medics or better businesspeople. lt will only make us less international and more driven by a naive belief in an economy, but with no critical tools to see where this economy comes from and how it is situated – whether we like it or not – in wider political, cultural, psychological and yes, linguistic contingencies.
Too often, lrish educational policies have borrowed from British models, rather than observing European or other ones. lt is worth noting that even in the UK, where the teaching of modern languages in schools and at university has been under severe and sustained attack in recent years, a growing awareness has emerged that a catastrophic loss of competency and indeed of literacy has been the result. The recently published All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Modern Language (UK) 2011 calls for the reinstatement of “compulsory languages”.
It would be a particularly bitter irony if, at a time when British educational policy faces up to the reality of past mistakes, Ireland, under the guidance of a Minister for Education who is regarded as a committed European, were to begin an attack on the learning of European and Inter-Continental languages. – Yours, etc,