Wednesday 22 November 2017

Why it's really time to mind our languages in schools

A is for allez: Lauren Corbet's trips to France improved her grasp of the language
A is for allez: Lauren Corbet's trips to France improved her grasp of the language

Irish jobseekers and businesses are losing out because of their poor grasp of foreign languages. While much of the recent attention in education has focused on poor performance in maths and science, the tongue-tied nature of the Irish curriculum is now causing concern.

Figures from the European Commission show that Irish primary schools have the lowest levels of foreign language tuition in Europe.

And the recent OECD report 'Education at a Glance' showed that the amount of hours devoted to languages at second-level in Ireland is around half the average, at 7pc.

The language shortfall has not gone unnoticed.

Paul Sweetman, director of ICT Ireland, a body that represents employers in the computer sector, says: "A lot of our members are now talking about the need for employees with language skills in order to market their products effectively.''

Typically, multinational companies would have a European base in Ireland and need employees who can speak the languages of the continent.

Indigenous Irish companies also need language skills in order to do business abroad.

The powers-that-be in education should have been given pause for thought by a recent pronouncement by the Vice President of Google, John Herlihy

Announcing bumper profits at Google's Irish operation, Mr Herlihy revealed that of the 1,500 staff employed at the company's European headquarters in Dublin only 25-30pc were Irish.

The Dublin-based staff earn an average of €72,000 per year, but why are the vast majority of jobs going to foreigners?

John Herlihy said Google hired most of their staff from continental Europe, because of their linguistic skills.

'We are in the business of selling and customers like to buy in their native language,'' he told RTE News. "We have young Europeans coming over here who can speak four or five languages.''

The news that Google is turning away Irish job candidates because of their poor language skills is perhaps the ultimate irony. In recent years, a complacent belief has grown up that students no longer need foreign languages, because English is supposed to be the mother tongue of the internet and the international media.

There is an attitude that "We have English, and everybody speaks English, so why bother?'', according to Maire G Ni Chiarba, the ASTI languages representative on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

"Languages are taught in a haphazard fashion in Irish schools and the amount of time devoted to them varies enormously,'' says Ms Ni Chiarba, who teaches French, Spanish and German at Colaiste An Phiarsaigh in Cork.

"There is a vicious circle in schools. Because we spend relatively little time on languages, there are relatively few teachers who study them in college. So there is a shortage of teachers with language skills''

The importance placed on languages by employers slipped below the radar during the boom, when there was a plentiful supply of jobs, but the complacent attitude may be about to change.

A new report by the Higher Education Authority on the role of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in public policy noted the demand for language skills.

The report said: "When asked what would be required of (arts) graduates over the next decade, employers repeatedly commented that foreign language ability will become more important.''

According to the study, students of foreign languages account for only 3pc and 2pc of undergraduates in Irish universities and institutes of technology respectively.

Identifying our languages shortfall in schools is one thing; devising a policy to tackle it will be a much greater challenge.

There is already curriculum overload, particularly in the Junior Certificate, and there is likely to be a lot of debate over which languages are given priority.

French continues to be the dominant foreign language in second-level schools. But Tony O'Donohoe, Head of Education at IBEC, says the priority given to French owes more to historical factors than any analysis of the needs of learners and the State.

Relatively obscure languages, such as Slovakian and Latvian, are offered at Leaving Cert level while Mandarin Chinese, the most commonly spoken language in the world, is not on the curriculum.

The confusion in our language policy was underlined recently when the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, called for the inclusion of Mandarin Chinese as a Leaving Cert subject.

Only a few weeks earlier, the Minister for Education Mary Coughlan had ruled out the introduction of Mandarin.

Until the Government introduces a coherent language policy, Irish students are likely to lose out in the jobs market as companies look elsewhere for the skills that they require.

Irish Independent

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