Paul Gillespie: Plurilingualism – why we’re so bad at picking up more languages

Ireland is the only European state where a foreign language is not a compulsory part of the primary, secondary or third level curriculum

Ireland fares badly in international comparisons of plurilingualism – an individual’s ability to speak at least two languages in addition to her mother tongue. This remains so even though high immigration means Ireland now scores much better in comparative multilingualism – the presence of many spoken languages in a given territory.

The 2011 census finds half a million Irish residents speak a language other than English or Irish at home, with Polish, Lithuanian, Filipino, Mandarin and Russian prominent among them. Some 200 languages are spoken here and about 12 per cent of school students are born abroad.

A 2012 Eurobarometer survey found 40 per cent of Irish people were able to hold a conversation in at least one foreign language, compared to an EU average of 54 per cent. Only the UK, Portugal, Italy and Hungary scored less.

Citing this, the Department of Education and Skills in its current consultation document on a strategy for foreign languages in education makes the case that two-thirds of the world's population are bilingual. They add: "People who are bilingual or plurilingual tend to be more flexible, more creative and more fluent in their mother tongue. They communicate more clearly and accurately to diverse audiences and are much sought after by employers."


This consultation is part of the Government’s action plan for jobs, recognising that language skills represent a growing economic advantage.

Official policy

The document notes the EU’s now official policy is in favour of a mother tongue plus two other languages, together with the cultural and economic advantages that confers. It refers positively to the landmark Council of Europe profile of Ireland’s educational approach to languages in 2008, which concluded plurilingualism can enhance cultural identity as well as economic competitiveness.

That reference touches on the sensitive issue of the Irish language, the time it takes up in school curriculums and poor outcomes in terms of conversational abilities. Polish is now more widely spoken by Irish residents, although other research finds about 400,000 Irish citizens can speak Irish well, while the census puts the figure at three times that on the basis of occasional use.

But despite the department’s commitment to and endorsement of the value of this new linguistic diversity – including its potential to include Irish in a wider, more creative linguistic repertoire – the actual picture in education and social practice is far less promising and seems to be going backwards.

Ireland (and Scotland) are the only European countries where a foreign language is not a compulsory part of the primary, secondary or third level curriculum. Because of time pressures at primary level only 3 per cent of pupils study a language other than English or Irish, compared to an average of 50 per cent doing so elsewhere in Europe.

Only the university entrance requirements keep the secondary figure around 70 per cent. While French still dominates at secondary level, it is less prominent than before compared to German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Arabic or Mandarin.

Languages undermined

But there are now proposals to remove languages as a compulsory university entrance requirement, which would undermine secondary languages disastrously. At third level there are pressures on smaller language schools to close or amalgamate due to reduced demand. The study of languages at institutes of technology in the last decade has collapsed.

That bleak picture accords badly with a growing demand for greater linguistic competence from employer bodies such as Ibec. Chambers of commerce such as the German one say job opportunities are being lost, even though secondary and third level study of German is picking up from a low level.

The outgoing boss of Google Ireland has lamented the poor linguistic record of Irish graduates. Economic researchers point to this factor as explaining why the high-technology foreign direct investment flowing disproportionately to Ireland means such companies recruit fewer than 50 per cent of graduates from Irish universities.

In his contribution to the recent stimulating volume of sociological studies edited by Tom Inglis, Are the Irish Different?, the UCD social scientist Bryan Fanning argues: "There is now a huge disjuncture between official Ireland and the diversity of Irish society. Only a tiny minority of immigrants are Irish citizens, and the Irish nation, for the most part, persists as the monoethnic entity envisaged by early 20th- century cultural nationalists."

Official Ireland seems equally incapable of overcoming our careless and lazy adoption of the Anglosphere over the last 15 years rather than harnessing the greater plurilingualism at work in our society for economic as well as cultural development.