Thursday 20 June 2019

Lack of language skills hurts our employment chances

Sarah McCabe

Irish students fall far, far below their EU counterparts when it comes to learning languages.

New statistics on language ability from the European statistics agency Eurostat paint a stark picture.

In the EU, half of all secondary school students study two or more languages; in Ireland, the comparable figure is only 8pc.

While in the Czech Republic two or more languages are studied by every single secondary school student, one-fifth of Irish students at Leaving Cert level study no foreign languages.

On the continent, it is normal for children to begin studying foreign languages from as young as three, often because it is compulsory on junior school curriculums. A recent report by the Royal Irish Academy said Ireland was the only country in Europe, other than Scotland, where a foreign language was not compulsory at any stage of the school curriculum.

A good portion of this disparity can be attributed to the fact that English is our spoken language.

Failing to learn English can be a huge hindrance to non-native speakers in later life, chiefly in relation to career prospects.


In France, 93pc of students learn English at primary level.

Yet not all of our ineptness when it comes to languages can be blamed on speaking English. UK students, whose native tongue is also English, fare far better. In Britain, three-quarters of 10-year-olds learn a language, in comparison to just 7pc here.

The Irish figures are expected to get steadily worse given that the state-sponsored scheme that encourages the learning of foreign languages in primary school, 'The Modern Languages in Primary School Initiative', was suspended last year.

This is truly distressing given how much emphasis we place on attracting foreign investment.

Multinational employers have repeatedly cited a lack of ability at foreign languages as a major shortcoming among Irish graduates.

The end result is that multinationals, attracted here by our corporation tax rate, are forced to recruit staff from overseas to fill their Irish offices.

Paypal, for example, has had to hire 500 employees from abroad to meet its linguistic requirements.

Other research from the German Irish Chamber of Commerce shows there are 2,000 vacant jobs for German speakers in Ireland.

There is some hope; the Erasmus programme, which allows EU third-level students the chance to spend a year at another European university at no extra cost, has been very successful at promoting language learning.

Irish students have shown increasing interest in this programme – 1.42pc of the total student population went on an Erasmus exchange in the academic year 2011/2012, up from 1.29pc a year before.

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