David McWilliams: If our future is in Europe, we have to talk the talk
On Monday at a breakfast meeting, I spoke to a group of students who were just finishing the masters in marketing from the Michael Smurfit School of Business at UCD.
The meeting was sponsored by ESB or, as it is soon to be known, Electricity Ireland. The students were optimistic about the future, confident and well educated. They were nervous about their own job prospects but were putting a brave face on things.
While chatting over a full Irish, one of the professors told me that he was just back from a conference in Lisbon where pan-European business and marketing courses were being devised in cooperation with other European universities. These courses hosted by various European universities would be invaluable to Irish graduates as they would give them a great grounding in international marketing. However, there was one drawback: language.
They could not find enough Irish graduates, even the top-tier ones, who could speak a second and third language proficiently enough to do the courses. He explained that this was one of the key stumbling blocks for Irish marketing graduates in Europe -- very few had any competence in foreign languages.
Later at home, my 11-year-old daughter came into the kitchen. I asked her what she had done in school, and she replied that the whole class in her national school had just written a letter to the Education Minister to complain because their Spanish teacher had just been made redundant.
As part of the Government's austerity drive, the excellent Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative -- see www.mlpsi.ie -- has been shut down. This was a scheme to introduce children early to foreign languages, to give them a feel for foreign languages and to lay the foundations of a familiarity with foreign languages.
In short, this scheme is crucial if the graduates of tomorrow are to get a fair chance to work in Europe, either for big European companies or for Irish companies exporting into the rest of the EU.
Here, we see the lack of any real joined-up thinking in our education system, all because of choices the Government is making. I bet the civil servant who made this decision to cut foreign language teaching does not speak a foreign language.
Everyone knows that it is much easier to teach younger children languages because they learn quicker.
One of the most famous discoveries in biology in the last 50 years is that, in common with all young animals, the brains of children go through critical periods when they are particularly receptive to learning or mapping different forms and patterns of information.
Language is one such pattern. Babies and young infants pick up new words and sounds effortlessly during the critical period of early cortex development. It is referred to as brain plasticity when the brain is subtle, growing and sponge-like. After age one it gets more difficult, but it is still much easier for children to learn new words and they can learn loads of languages simultaneously because of the way the words are stored in the same brain map.
After 12 years old, learning a language gets progressively harder until, as adults, it is exceedingly difficult. The older you get, the more you use your native language and the more it comes to dominate your linguistic map. You still have brain plasticity, but your mother tongue rules.
This is why early learning is so critical, because it is easier, more fulfilling and, even when seen through the narrow prism of budget accountancy, it is far, far, cheaper. Yet here we are abolishing modern language programmes in our primary schools because we need to save money when we know if we are to teach languages to these children as they get older it will be much more expensive.
The real problem is not money, but the inability to join up our thinking. We have one end of the education system crying out for some proficiency in modern languages and at the other end, cutting back on language learning for our primary school children, thereby reducing their chances of being fully paid-up members of the European Union's workforce.
So the Irish state does one thing without considering the inconsistencies in the decision and what we get is a lack of clarity about anything. In order to stick to the austerity plan imposed by the EU, we are going to learn fewer European languages and make ourselves actually less European in order to become better Europeans.
Go figure -- as our largest trading and investing partners, the Americans would say.
On Monday morning, following the weekend when we reaffirmed that we would be good Europeans and pay all the Anglo and Irish Nationwide promissory notes, another inconsistency presented itself. We are going to sell a good asset like ESB at a deep discount, while at the same time buy worthless assets like IOUs of Anglo Irish Bank at a premium -- all in order to improve our national balance sheet. This is lunacy and shows no consistency. If we are to sell ESB and put the proceeds into the black hole of Anglo, what is the point?
Such stupidity doesn't make the balance sheet better; it self-evidently makes it worse.
Even a child will tell you this makes no sense. A monolingual teenager would tell you to get your house in order you have to sell what you can, even if it might not be the best timing and that you can't buy anything until you have enough money to do so.
Yet the EU is telling us we need to sell ESB and to pay for Anglo -- a bank which is being closed down. Worse still, the promissory note, which we are paying, is a loan given to Anglo by our Central Bank, which in turn, owes the cash to the ECB.
So think about the logic here. The ECB, the bank that won't lend to governments but will lend to banks in Europe because lending to governments is "wrong", is forcing the Irish Government to go further into debt to finance a bust bank called Anglo and this is supposed to be right?
Confused? Me too.
One of the problems over the next few months is that the Government is going to have to present a case which explains -- if there is a referendum -- why we should go along with more European integration. This needs to be a clear and honest case. Sometimes the slogan "more Europe" seems like a flag of convenience rather than a set of clear ideas or coherent aspirations.
We want to be more European but we won't teach our children European languages. We want to be more European but should we deploy kamikaze tactics whereby we sell good stuff and buy bad stuff with money we don't have in order to be good members of the club?
So 2012 could well be the year to make these choices. We need to be clear about where we want to go next. The decisions we make will tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the European Union.