Boys still bottom of class for languages
BOYS continue to lag behind girls in language skills in second-level schools, a new report has found.
And a leading educationalist last night warned the underperformance of teenage boys must be tackled urgently.
Irish boys are less likely to learn a foreign language in school than their female counterparts. And where they do, their results are considerably poorer than girls.
Twice as many girls as boys take subjects such as French, German and Spanish in the Leaving Certificate and they are also more likely to study the languages at higher level.
The pattern becomes more pronounced between the junior and leaving exams.
A Department of Education report in 2007 noted an "enduring discrepancy" in performance between boys and girls, with between 5pc-10pc more girls achieving A, B, and C grades at higher level in those languages in the Leaving Cert.
"There is a substantial phenomenon of boys opting out and underachieving relative to girls in the area of foreign language learning in Ireland," Dr Brian Murphy, of the School of Education at University College Cork (UCC), said yesterday.
Dr Murphy, a specialist in language and literacy, is an Irish adviser for the OECD PISA study, which compares the achievement of 15-year-old students in the developed world.
He says the gender problem in foreign-language learning may be linked to how the education system approaches the teaching of literacy and language generally, which is seen as more suited to girls.
There is a view that girls' brains work in a way that makes them predisposed to language learning. They are regarded as having more aural, oral and memory skills that contribute to success with languages.
Girls are also seen to benefit from the emphasis on the use of fiction in language learning, particularly at Junior Cert level.
Languages are seen as a victim of a macho culture, which attaches little importance among boys to skills such as personal expression, which form the bedrock of foreign-language classroom practice.
Separate studies have found boys do not consider language learning to be important, interesting or motivating.
Dr Murphy said the issue of gender in foreign-language learning has been "conspicuously absent from the national education agenda".
He argued that "there has been little official recognition and discussion on this issue in recent Irish research and government publications".
The educationalist has called for "immediate action" in the interests of equality of opportunity for all, in all subjects, and the vital importance of foreign-language learning for promoting tolerance and inclusion in a more pluralist society.
The gender issue is not unique to Ireland, however.
"Across the Anglophone world, language learning is not an option taken seriously by boys and the majority continue to refuse in the language-learning option," Dr Murphy said. "The internationally acknowledged feminisation of participation in language learning is clearly also a feature of the Irish educational system."