Smart Consumer: Why we should say 'Mais oui!' to foreign languages
Published 06/01/2011 | 05:00
If you've ever been to Spain, chances are you can say "Una cerveza, por favor"; or if France is your preferred holiday choice, "Je voudrais une baguette, s'il vous plait" may easily trip off your tongue.
That may be more or less the extent of your proficiency and in fairness it's pretty handy that we all speak English.
But there are economic implications to not speaking a foreign language. Take the fact that many multinationals based here seek employees with language skills and add to that the reality that many people have to look elsewhere for work, and learning a foreign language well starts looking like a smart move.
Eurostat figures show that in Ireland 58% of students at secondary school study a foreign language compared to the EU average of 83%. Yes, they are mainly learning English but an EU average of 60% also study a second foreign language; here that figure is a mere 8%.
However, even for those learning a foreign language at school the tuition they receive may not be enough. Linguist, former teacher and founder of The French Language School, Siobhan Ní Ghiolla Rí, feels the standard isn't what it used to be.
"If I gave current Leaving Cert French students the listening comprehension CD from eight years ago, the average student would not be able to understand it," she claims. "I've also tutored third-level French students who were just not able for their courses, so the standard really needs to be pulled up".
Which may explain why her exam-preparation courses based in Ennis and Co Dublin are already booked out for this year.
But as the New Year is typically the time to plan and book such extra tuition, what costs are parents looking at?
In general, forking out for extra tuition can cost you just over €300 for a 16-week exam preparation course, and this typically involves a one-hour class per week.
But many parents feel their children need more, and that is provided by full immersion in the language and culture, supplied by study-abroad courses. A two-week course in France or Spain can cost up to €1,500 and that's before flights.
Despite the extra outlay many parents are going for it. Michael Stein set up Stein Study Abroad in 2006, a company that was born out of the need to find his daughter a reputable language school abroad. In the first year there were 800 students, by last year that number had doubled.
"Why spend six years learning a language in school and then graduate being unable to really speak the language?" asks Stein.
Why indeed? Anyone who can order a beer in Spanish after a few days of being there will realise that being surrounded by a language and forced to speak it is the best way of learning it. But shouldn't schools be doing better so our bank balances don't have to suffer any more?