Ruadhán Mac Cormaic: Monoglot Ireland will be at loss post-Brexit
Tight links to Anglosphere have blinded Ireland to other political and trade avenues
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: Government ministers tend not to speak any foreign languages. Mr Varadkar has twice gone to Downing Street but has yet to pay a visit to Paris or Berlin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Britain’s Brexit breakdown, like all good horror shows, leaves you repulsed yet somehow unable to avert your eyes.
Ireland is wedged into the best seat in the house – the penetration of British media here allows us, or forces us, to follow every turn in the grim spectacle more closely than most Europeans – but our view of it is shaped by two home-grown impulses. The first, naturally, is concern at the potential consequences of the British decision for economic life on the island.
The second is utter bewilderment at Britain’s – or, more accurately, England’s – self-destructive inwardness, and the tragi-comic ineptitude of its elite in trying to bring about something it knows to be a terrible mistake. It’s hard to miss, in some of the Brexit commentary in Ireland, a note of self-satisfaction at all of this.
Just as Irish diplomats around the world have spent a year reassuring their host governments that Dublin is not London, that Ireland is on a very different course from its daft neighbour, it’s comforting to convince ourselves that England’s post-imperial crisis makes as little sense to us as to anyone else.
At one level it’s true. Whereas the UK’s relationship with the EU was always transactional and semi-detached, Ireland invested emotionally in the project, tying it in the public mind to the modernisation of the country and its emergence from Britain’s shadow. The two countries have very different views of Europe and their own place in the world. An Irish referendum to leave the EU would be comfortably defeated. Yet Brexit is already exposing serious, long-standing problems on this side of the Irish Sea.
One of those problems is that, having hid behind the UK at the European table for 45 years, Dublin has neglected its other relationships. With the exception of farming, London was Ireland’s chief ally on all its most sensitive issues: tax, trade and financial services. Now, with the UK heading for the door, Dublin is scrambling to forge new alliances in places it never previously bothered to look. Similarly, the country’s over-reliance on the UK as an export market is forcing the State to ramp up its promotional work across Europe, Asia and Latin America.
It makes it more difficult to get jobs, to trade, to negotiate, to learn from others
Another, not unrelated, problem is Ireland’s chronic resistance to learning other people’s languages. In a continent where proficiency in two or three foreign languages is not uncommon, Ireland is consistently near the bottom of the class; according to Eurostat, 73 per cent of Irish adults say they cannot speak a foreign language, compared to 6 per cent in Denmark and 21.5 per cent in Germany.
The best reasons for learning a language are as much affective as functional – it broadens your perspective and makes the world far more interesting, which is reason enough – but the implications of being monoglot in a multilingual continent are plain to see. It makes it more difficult to get jobs, to trade, to negotiate, to learn from others.
The Irish public service, for example, is oriented almost totally towards the Anglosphere. What qualifies as “international comparison” in most official reports, from healthcare to road safety, is typically the experience of a handful of English-speaking countries. Political parties’ policy imports invariably originate in the same places. Government ministers tend not to speak any foreign languages, and that’s reflected in their worldview.
It’s striking, for example, that more than four months after becoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar has twice gone to Downing Street and has had two bilateral meetings with the Canadian prime minister but has yet to pay a visit to Paris or Berlin, where the future of the EU will largely be shaped. Symbolism matters; the message this conveys is entirely at odds with Dublin’s supposed strategic reorientation towards the continent. The media is far from blameless either. More and more of Ireland’s news is being made on the Continent, yet most Irish outlets don’t have full-time correspondents there.
You can convince yourself that, because so many people speak English, none of this matters
To begin to put this right, children would have to be taught a foreign language from an early age, and foreign languages would be compulsory at primary and second level. Long-term investment in student mobility and exchange programmes is also important. We have a lot going for us. Irish people already travel widely, and the fact that Irish is taught through primary and second-level gives children an advantage; the more languages you have, the easier it is to pick up new ones. The presence of almost 200 foreign languages in the country, thanks to high immigration of the past 20 years, means large numbers of young people have grown up with the ability to move between languages every day.
By definition, the monoglot doesn’t know what he or she is missing. You can convince yourself that, because so many people speak English, none of this matters. It does. What supposedly underpins Ireland’s openness to the world – the English language – actually narrows the country’s field of vision dramatically. Brexit is going to make that more apparent than ever.