Saturday 20 January 2018

In My Opinion: Tackling our insecurites about languages is vital to the economy

Don Morgan

Given the current state of the country, it's hardly surprising there's much wrangling around education.

The Junior Cert is set for a Joan Rivers-style facelift, whilst Ruairi Quinn agonises over how to make the education system "fit for purpose". In terms of foreign languages, this task is massive: having consistently ignored complaints from experts and educators, having whistled past the sprawling graveyard of domestic policy documents and directives from the EU, will the Government finally make modern foreign languages a priority and source of pride in Ireland's schools?

According to a Royal Irish Academy (RIA) report, 66pc of people claimed no knowledge of a modern foreign language. It's unsurprising, since learning a foreign language in school isn't compulsory.

EU statistics compound the gloom: only 3pc of primary pupils learn a foreign language, the lowest such rate in the EU. In secondary schools, 58pc of students learn French, 17pc study German. Every think-tank and organisation from Dublin to Brussels has been banging on about this for years: learning foreign languages is vital for our economic and cultural development. Yet, we face massive challenges to improve standards.

The first thing to tackle is... us. We have a bewildering lack of confidence when it comes to foreign languages. Still common is the phrase: "I'm no good at languages." I hear it as a teacher of German, among children and adults. It's utter nonsense.

Adults end up pigeonholing a child and hobbling their self-confidence. A learner becomes over-conscious of mistakes, and will engage in sabotaging their progress, rather than take a chance at success. The sheer joy of new communication is worth leaving your comfort zone, and is fun.

Another obstacle exists in our schools. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are sometimes seen as a timetabling headache. So if the opportunity arises, a principal may be forgiven for considering reaching past the medicine cabinet and straight for the axe. Another potential multi-lingual asset to the workforce goes begging.

We ignore initiatives that would help our education system. The new European Survey on Language Competences, for instance, gauges the performance of students across the EU.

Although not the only country not participating, are we banging doors down to be involved? The Common Framework for Language Competences, a simple reference guide giving people in the EU a standard to gauge their language skills, is almost totally ignored.

Now reaching its end, the Junior Cert doesn't even feature an oral exam -- daft if it wasn't negligent.

The RIA suggests an over-arching language policy, but we also need to change our attitude towards languages. They need autonomy, imagination and academic rigour to compete in a knowledge economy. It's time for adults to engage with meaning and intelligence with languages in our schools.

Don Morgan is a teacher of German at CBC, Monkstown, Co Dublin

Irish Independent

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