As we move into the post-Brexit world, our ability to communicate with customers in distant markets in their own language will become a vital competitive differentiator. We can hardly expect 1.4 billion Chinese people to learn English just to suit us, can we?
“Ireland is an export-oriented economy,” says Claire McGee, head of education and innovation policy with Ibec. “We export 95 per cent of what we produce, and we need to be able to tell a positive story about that to our customers around the world. In the post-Brexit environment, we will have to become more globalised and language skills will become even more important.”
Unfortunately, our collective language capabilities show no real signs of improvement and there are even some signs of slippage if the latest data from recruitment website Jobs.ie are anything to go by. Last September, the site released statistics which revealed a potential skill shortage for roles requiring workers with a second language.
Of even greater concern was the fact that demand for foreign language courses in third-level institutions had actually fallen.
Jobs requiring a foreign language competency made up almost 4 per cent of total job postings on the site in the first nine months of 2019. Of those roles, 29 per cent required workers with conversational ability in German, French (22 per cent), Dutch (13 per cent), Italian (6 per cent) and Spanish (6 per cent). There was also a significant increase in the requirement for non-European languages with demand for Chinese rising by 40 per cent year on year.
Speaking following the announcement of the figures, Jobs.ie general manager Chris Paye said: “Foreign language skills are an essential criterion for employers looking to fill positions that may involve interaction with international customers or stakeholders. Workers with a language skillset are an invaluable asset to Irish businesses that wish to expand outside of Ireland or access new markets. Employees that present with these skills can reap the benefits of the career development that this offers.”
‘Language skills are gold’
"Language skills are gold for employers like us," says Sinéad D'Arcy, head of the Jameson International Graduate Programme. "We have people in 50 different markets around the world. The eight key languages for us are French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin, and Japanese. Our biggest market is North America, but our biggest growth opportunities are in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We have 80 people on our graduate programme and 57 per cent of them speak one or more international languages."
Demand for language skills is much broader than simply a requirement for fluency on the part of employees based overseas, according to Claire McGee. “In many cases, when companies are looking for native speakers in customer service roles, they tend to bring them in from abroad. But in business development roles there may be a need for language proficiency and cultural awareness. The ability to converse in French, Spanish, Portuguese or German is important and can complement or supplement other skills. It is very important for companies moving into new markets or countries.”
We are probably not learning languages at an early enough age. We need to get into the habit of being comfortable with foreign languages
She also points to the skills that language graduates bring to an organisation. “Languages are difficult to learn. We need to make sure that people want to study them and that there is a place for language graduates in organisations. Their skills are very valuable – cultural awareness, critical thinking faculties, ability to communicate with diverse audiences. These are all becoming more important to organisations. A lot of companies hiring graduates are looking for resilience and a lot of language students have to study abroad for a year or more and this is not an easy thing to do. It takes guts. That’s very valuable.”
But we are still not producing enough graduates or people with language skills. “We are probably not learning languages at an early enough age,” McGee says. “We need to get into the habit of being comfortable with foreign languages. I think the curriculum should be changed. Language learning at primary level would be very good. If we are committed to becoming a global society with a global outlook, we need to back that with language learning. We need to make sure we are harnessing the potential of our people better.”
Action Plan for Education
The Government has acknowledged the problem in the Project Ireland 2040 development plan. One of the major focuses of the programme’s Action Plan for Education is the encouragement of more foreign language learning.
The plan aims to significantly increase the number of students studying a foreign language, at all levels of education, to raise proficiency levels and to diversify the number of languages studied. In post-primary schools, the targets include an increase in the number of schools offering two or more foreign languages, all junior cycle students to study a foreign language by 2021, 10 per cent increase in the number of Leaving Cert students taking foreign language subjects, and doubling the number of schools offering more than two foreign languages in transition year.
And this is being translated into action on the ground, according to Sinéad D’Arcy. “The Think Language event in the Convention Centre Dublin in December was aimed at highlighting to transition year students the personal, social, professional and economic benefits of language learning. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has said that languages are critically important to trade and investment. There is a need to focus more on languages at second and third levels but we know the Government is doing something about it and this is welcome.”