Tuesday 20 August 2019

Time to break through the language barrier

Our lack of fluency in foreign tongues is holding us back

Note perfect: Students at Lajanda near Cadiz in Spain learning Spanish on one of the courses offered by Stein Study abroad
Note perfect: Students at Lajanda near Cadiz in Spain learning Spanish on one of the courses offered by Stein Study abroad
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Tongue-tied Irish students will have to brush up on their language skills in order to improve their chances in the jobs market.

During the Celtic Tiger era, students may have felt that they had no need to learn other languages, because the world was coming to our door.

The existence of English as the language of America and the internet led to complacency. Near full employment meant we did not have to sell ourselves to foreigners through every means possible in order to find jobs.

Now that we are in deep recession it may be time to make foreign languages chic all over again, according to experts.

And this time, Chinese and Japanese and Russian might be added to the languages considered important in schools. Already some students in Cork are being taught Chinese culture and language as part of transition year.

Japanese is also growing in popularity as a subject taken at second level.

"There is growing recognition that the global centre of gravity is shifting to Asia, and that should be reflected in the languages we learn,'' says Karen Ruddock, coordinator of the Post-Primary Language Initiative, which aims to enhance language learning in schools.

Employers do not give us high marks for languages. The latest Graduate Recruitment Trends Survey showed that almost one quarter of employers (23.7pc) complain that Irish graduates lack fluency in a foreign language.

The problem appears to start at primary level, where Ireland is bottom of the class in foreign language learning, according to another study.

A recent evaluation of early learning of modern foreign languages by academics John Harris and Denise O'Leary found that Ireland is the only country out of 30 European states where foreign languages are not taught in all primary schools.

The existence of Irish could be used as an excuse for not condescending to speak other tongues, but it does not really wash. In many other European countries, students have to learn at least two domestic languages as well as a foreign language. In Switzerland, for example, there are four languages spoken -- German, French, Italian and Romanish.

Studies show that the learning of one language should not detract from the absorption of another.

Reports by bodies such as the employers' group IBEC calling for compulsory foreign languages at primary level have not been implemented.

At present, a scheme to increase foreign language teaching at primary level only covers one in six Irish primary schools.

The Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative only covers 510 schools, despite calls by the Government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs to make it universal.

Studies by the skills group have found that the availability of an internal supply of foreign language skills would enhance the attractiveness of Ireland as a base for multi-national companies.

Teacher Anne Kerrien, a native French speaker who offers tuition on the internet through her site 121frenchtuition.com, says: "The reality is that people don't really want to learn languages in Ireland.

"I think a real problem here is the teaching of languages. They are generally not well taught in Irish schools.

"French is taught as an academic subject for exams. I don't think that pupils are encouraged to think that it is an exciting subject that they can discover and explore.

"They don't have much chance to assimilate the spoken language.''

Anne Kerrien says it is a sign of the failure of our language teaching that when someone says they have "school French'', they usually mean they can hardly speak the language at all.

"In Ireland, children should be learning languages at a younger age. It is widely accepted that they learn a language more easily then.''

While French is still the most commonly taught foreign language, with just over 28,000 students sitting the Leaving Cert in the subject, it has declined in popularity in recent years.

Moves to teach Chinese in Irish schools are being spearheaded by the Institute of Chinese Studies at UCC.

Professor Fan Hong of the Institute says: "Mandarin will become an important language for Ireland in the 21st century.

"People have to realise that if you want to find a job, you have to be able to communicate in other languages,'' says Professor Fan.

"It may not be necessary to learn the language so that you speak it fluently. But some basic knowledge will certainly help people. Mandarin is now a major language of business.''

The cultural benefits of language learning are arguably just as great. By turning up our noses at foreign languages in the recent past we have closed ourselves off to different ways of thinking.

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