Only 8 per cent of Irish secondary pupils learn two or more foreign languages, the European average is 60 per cent. How are we getting it so wrong? asks GRÁINNE FALLER
UNUSUALLY for Morning Ireland these days, the news was good. It was the beginning of March and managing director of HP Ireland, Martin Murphy, was being interviewed about 60 new jobs created by his company. He explained that the jobs would require candidates to speak at least one of a variety of European languages. “No Irish need apply then,” quipped the interviewer.
The remark may have been flippant, but it held more than a kernel of truth. A large proportion of the jobs offered by multinational companies over the past 12 months have involved a language requirement. While companies have little trouble filling these roles, thanks to Ireland’s recently cosmopolitan population, indigenous Irish applicants often do not appear to be measuring up.
Lindsay Smith is HP Ireland’s staffing specialist. She finds that, if a job is advertised with a language requirement, Irish graduates tend not to apply. Of those that do, fewer still make the grade. “Very few of the graduates would have the level of fluency that we’re looking for,” she says. “They have a level of fluency of course, but a lot of the Irish who apply are often pipped to the post.”
Demand for people with language skills looks set to remain strong. “The language element is very important for us,” says Andrew Pease, site director for eBay Ireland. “Our business here is pan-European and Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Italian customers are all supported from Dublin. Having a multi-lingual centre is crucial.”
The area of international services was also highlighted by the IDA in their recent IDA Ireland 2020 strategy.
So where are we going wrong? If French people can come here and have a level of English that allows them to work with HP or eBay, why don’t Irish people display similar multi-lingual skills?
Ireland is the only European country where study of a foreign language is not compulsory at any stage of the education system. Indeed, only 8 per cent of Irish secondary school students learn two or more foreign languages compared with the European average of 60 per cent. In addition, Ireland does not have a policy on language education and the Department of Education has admitted that without one, the drop in languages studied at second-level will continue. In 2001, 94 per cent of Junior Cert students sat a foreign language exam. This fell to approximately 86 per cent last year. At Leaving Certificate level, 79 per cent of students sat a foreign language exam in 2001, but that figure dropped to just about 68 per cent last year.
Professor David Little is now retired from his post as head of the School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences in TCD but remains deeply involved in this issue. “The situation in Ireland, despite various initiatives as far back as 1986, remains the same to this day,” he says.
A policy would enable us to look ahead, Little believes. It could ask questions for the future of the economy and society as well as language teaching. What languages should be taught? How do we address the supply of teachers? Are there short cuts we can take? Are there ways to facilitate the teaching and learning of more European languages?
The problems regarding the teaching, learning and assessment of languages in this country, according to Little, are partly systemic. Attempts at radical reform are scuppered by the fragmented nature of the system, he says. The Department of Education and Skills is responsible for policy, for example, but the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is responsible for curriculum while the State Examination Commission sets the exams.
“A lot of research is being done in the area of language education, about the best ways to teach and learn, but the research does not appear to be filtering down.” Dr Muiris O Laoire, an expert in language policy in IT Tralee, agrees that the implementation of the kind of change needed has been stymied by the system. He continues: “In my experience, teachers are hungry to innovate, but they are not being supported in this. There is a deep rooted problem in implementing change.”
Naturally, there are many other issues to consider. “In very many schools, language is not taught and learned as a means of communication,” says Little. “Some acquit themselves well but there are also serious issues around how languages are taught and examined here.”
The attitude that English is enough seemed to penetrate the consciousness throughout the boom, according to O Laoire. A modern language was perhaps not so much of an advantage when everyone could get a job. Now, O Laoire has noticed tentative signs of interest appearing again.
The Department of Education and Skills finally does seem to be intent on addressing our shortcomings in this area, but progress is slow. A Council of Europe report on language education policy in Ireland, published in 2008, made a number of recommendations such as adopting a more integrated approach to language teaching rather than delivering the subjects in isolation. Other recommendations advocated considering the position of modern languages in the primary school, as well as properly supporting second-level education, and examining the traditional models for language teacher education.
The report and its recommendations made an impression. Following on from its publication, a working group was set up and charged with drafting concrete proposals in line with its findings and recommendations. A draft languages policy document has since been produced and, according to Department sources, is being examined within the Department at present.
Meanwhile, there are pockets of positive activity around the country. Projects such as the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) which aims to introduce French, German, Italian and Spanish into the primary system, are vastly oversubscribed. The second-level equivalent, the Post Primary Languages Initiative, aims to support the teaching of Spanish and Italian, as well as providing resources for schools who wish to provide tuition in Japanese and Russian for their students. The Loreto Secondary School in Bray, Co Wicklow recently hit the news with its novel Chinese classes for students. As yet, however, these initiatives are far from mainstream.
The advantage a language can bestow on a job seeker, or even a worker within a company is significant. “A language is an accelerator in our company,” says Pease. “If we saw someone with three or four languages on their CV, we’d interview them first.” “It’s always an added bonus,” adds Smith. “The opportunities that open up in terms of travel and experience within the company are enormous if you have a language.”
From the business point of view, the sounds of progress are good. “Batt O’Keeffe, when he was minister for education, came out to meet us on this,” says Pease. “That meeting was a great indication of an intention to develop a medium to long-term strategy around languages. I would just very much hope that the appropriate follow up will take place.”
French domination: popularity of language goes back a very long way
THE DOMINANCE of French can be traced back to colonial times. French had prominence from the 17th century as the language of international diplomacy and was taught in the English system, and therefore the Irish system as well.
The language received a further boost when Latin – the classical language had been a requirement for most university courses – was dropped as a matriculation requirement in 1973.
French was already the second language in schools, but it grew in popularity after that. Indeed, many Latin teachers opted to become French teachers as one subject waned and the other grew.
The popularity of the language is self-propagating as, naturally, students who learn French are more likely to study it at third-level and therefore those who opt to become language teachers are likely to teach French.
Other languages remain in the minority. German received a boost during the 1980s when the German economy was held up as an example of how things should be, but the numbers studying it never came close to French. In recent years, interest in Spanish has increased but it is not available in all schools.