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Breaking down the language barrier - post primary offered more teaching hours for mandarin, Portuguese and Russian

Post-primary schools are being offered more teaching hours to bring in new subjects such as Mandarin, Portuguese and Russian, writes Katherine Donnelly

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Saoirse Kennedy and Roísín Smithers of St Mary’s Holy Faith, Glasnevin, look on as Korean Taekwondo students Yoosín Kìm and Taegyn Seo show off their skills at the PPLI Transition Year day. Photo: Julien Behal Photography

Saoirse Kennedy and Roísín Smithers of St Mary’s Holy Faith, Glasnevin, look on as Korean Taekwondo students Yoosín Kìm and Taegyn Seo show off their skills at the PPLI Transition Year day. Photo: Julien Behal Photography

Saoirse Kennedy and Roísín Smithers of St Mary’s Holy Faith, Glasnevin, look on as Korean Taekwondo students Yoosín Kìm and Taegyn Seo show off their skills at the PPLI Transition Year day. Photo: Julien Behal Photography

For a decade or more, it has been all about STEM. The transition to a knowledge economy has seen students, teachers and schools under pressure to pursue study in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, and at higher level, if possible.

More recently, Education Minister Joe McHugh made compulsory History for Junior Cycle students part of his legacy. If Fianna Fáil is in the next government, it says it will do the same with Geography.

Meanwhile, the Leaving Cert curriculum is growing organically, with Politics and Society, PE and Computer Science bringing to 39 the number of subjects available.

At Junior Cycle, the new short course options provide unprecedented opportunities for schools to introduce new areas of study to their pupils.

Now languages are getting a push.

Mandarin Chinese, Lithuanian, Polish and Portuguese are being introduced to the Leaving Cert curriculum in September. The latter three are among a number of languages in which native speakers have been enabled to sit exams, but putting them on the curriculum gives them a new status.

It's part of a drive to improve the language skills of Irish students, both by encouraging greater take-up of languages generally and introducing more diversity in what schools offer.

Various reports have pointed to the low competency levels in foreign languages in Ireland and the lack of diversity in the range provided across schools. Employers say there is a shortage of graduates and sufficiently skilled people in languages for trade and business.

In a globalised world, it is not only the ability to speak foreign languages that takes on a new level of importance, but also an awareness of other cultures that comes with it. Brexit has added a new imperative.

Karen Ruddock, Director of the Post Primary Languages Initiative (PPLI), a Department of Education (DES) unit providing support for foreign languages education in Ireland, predominantly at post-primary level, says: "You cannot understand someone's culture without speaking the language, and understanding their culture enables you to build bridges."

PPLI conducted an audit a few years ago to get some hard data on the languages landscape in second-level schools. It found that, while French is almost universally taught - it's available in 94pc of post-primary schools - beyond that, the picture is quite patchy.

Students in big schools, fee-paying schools and Dublin schools tended to have the best choice. A particularly reduced choice of languages was evident in schools in the north west.

There is a knock-on effect of low uptake of foreign languages in further and higher education.

The push behind turning Ireland into a nation of polyglots, has its roots in 'Languages Connect, Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education', which highlighted the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity for individuals, society and the economy. It noted the arrival of immigrants from almost 200 countries since 2000 as a resource to be nurtured.

The audit of foreign languages provision in post-primary schools showed an appetite within schools to broaden their offerings. Mandarin and Spanish emerged as the top two languages of interest in terms of boosting provision. There was also significant interest in German, Polish, Italian and Japanese and Russian.

But alongside an obvious enthusiasm, there are challenges.

More than half (58pc) of schools reported their overall allocation of teaching hours - which is based on student numbers and translates into teacher numbers - as an obstacle.

With school decisions on the number and choice of subjects linked to their teaching hours allocation and the level of student demand, it explains why larger schools and fee-paying schools (whose extra income supplements their State-paid teaching hours), can provide a bigger range. For instance, the audit found that 76pc of fee-paying schools offered Spanish at Junior Cycle, while it hovered around 30pc in other sectors.

Similarly, provision of Chinese in Transition Year was up to 50pc in the fee-paying sector, but only 14pc in education and training board (ETB) schools.

Ruddock concedes that "no school can offer everything - if you offer four or five languages, you are going to have a thinning in numbers and if you don't have the numbers, you have to choose a few."

But, depending on the make-up of the school, she thinks there is an opportunity to be more open-minded.

She asks: "Is it appropriate to look only at French and German, because that is what we have always done? We are encouraging schools to think about diversity and look at the global market rather than just the neighbours.

"We have to create a society where Irish people can use foreign languages beyond just a few."

Another challenge identified was a shortage of qualified teachers of foreign languages - and that problem is getting worse.

At the time of the audit a few years ago, 37pc of schools cited availability of a qualified teacher as an issue. PPLI can provide teachers for Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Polish and Russian to facilitate a language's introduction in schools, but it is only a short-term support.

Notwithstanding the various challenges, the Languages Connect strategy set out a number of ambitions around improving uptake in languages in the coming years. Targets include increasing the number of post-primary schools offering two or more foreign languages, increasing the number of students sitting two languages for State exams by 25pc, and increasing the proportion of higher education students studying a foreign language as part of their course to 20pc.

The DES has launched a number of initiatives to support it, including more funding for teacher upskilling and school language exchanges.

Before Christmas, PPLI facilitated a day of workshops for Transition Year students ranging from French food-tasting to Chinese calligraphy to provide them with an opportunity to experience and understand the social, cultural and professional benefits of learning foreign languages.

Now the DES is offering an incentive to post-primary schools to broaden their languages offering by giving an additional allocation of teaching hours to support a new subject from September.

The extra hours are being made available for Italian, Japanese, Russian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese and Lithuanian for which schools have been invited to apply.

A school can seek an allocation of extra hours to teach one of the seven targeted languages to a minimum of eight students.

It must give a commitment to provide the language for a minimum of two years, with a view to continuing for the long term through its regular teacher allocation, the hope being that the participating school will make the new language self-sustaining by the seventh year. It is suggested that schools could share a teacher.

Ruddock says there is a tendency to pitch STEM against languages, but she says it is not about one or the other. "It is about accessing those markets - how can you go out to those markets if you don't have the language."

While the Irish are native English speakers, she says the country is only 37th in the world in terms of the actual number of English speakers.

"If Ireland is competing for foreign direct investment (FDI), it is up against other countries where workers have two or three languages. Which country are they going to choose?" she says.

According to Ruddock, people who speak a number of different languages are more flexible and more resourceful than people who speak only one.

Irish Independent