With 437,000 people unemployed and emigration at its highest levels since the 1980s, the necessity to respond to market needs in one of the most open economies in the world is as important as ever. So, why is the Government missing the boat on foreign languages?
Britain’s education secretary, Michael Grove, has brought the issue of foreign language learning to the fore in Britain saying “there is a slam-dunk case of extending foreign language teaching to the age of five”.
The issue was reported in the Irish media, but failed to ignite any debate from politicians on the pros and cons of such a possible move. At the moment, 15% of Irish primary schools offer foreign language learning to fifth and sixth class pupils.
The failure to ignite debate is peculiar for a number of reasons. First, issues of education reform have been on the top of the agenda in recent weeks. Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, has highlighted the urgent need for reform of the Leaving Certificate points system, as Ireland slides down the rankings in education standards in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) studies.
The second reason is the current state of the economy. Despite the recession, Ireland remains one of the most open economies in the OECD, and as such, continues to attract a lot of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
This is seen with the continued success of the Irish export economy, which is viewed as the sector which will lead Ireland in economic recovery.
Any FDI investment brings with it the necessity for foreign languages, as companies like Facebook, Google and Hewlett Packard are using their Irish bases as headquarters for their European-wide operations.
As a result of the collapse in the construction industry, we now have an economy, where someone with a First-class honours degree in Engineering may struggle to find employment and be forced to emigrate, while a person with a pass degree but fluency in more than one European language may find a job at an international company relatively easily.
As the housing boom will never recover, the Fine Gael-Labour Government has repeatedly claimed it is through Ireland’s openness the economy will recover.
There are immediate market place advantages to those unemployed who have proficiency in foreign languages. If 437,000 people are unemployed, but only a small percentage has a proficiency in a language like German, then the advantage in finding a job, where German is required, is clear.
Despite this, Labour TD and deputy chairman of the Education Committee, Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin, says foreign languages are mostly off the agenda. “To be honest, our primary focus is on improving numeracy and literacy rates.”
Ciara O’Hare is a recent graduate of Media Arts with German in DIT. Since leaving DIT, Ciara spent a year in Germany teaching English, but chose to return to Ireland, where she has received a job at a multinational company in Dublin city centre, where proficiency in German was a requirement.
Without fluency in German, she admits emigration was likely. “ My chances of finding a job in Dublin would be a lot lower, it is definitely a huge advantage (having a foreign language) for applying to companies like Google and Facebook etc. If, after several months of job searching was unsuccessful I would definitely emigrate – not just for financial reasons but to gain work experience and not waste my time hoping for a job in Ireland.”
Ireland still has only a minority with a proficiency in foreign languages according to the Eurobarometer study, 2006. 66% of Irish people are unable to hold a conversation in a language either than their mother tongue, which is the lowest in the European Union.
Having English as our mother tongue is proving to be a disincentive to learn a foreign language and a disincentive for the Government to move it up the agenda. “I think having English has meant foreign language learning has not been prioritised. English is the language of commerce and we expect people in Europe to speak English”, says Ó’Ríordáin.
In spite of this, the disadvantages of a lack of foreign language proficiency is clear. According to a 2007 European Union study, exporting SMEs lose 11% of business due to language barriers.
Several recommendations have been made. The Royal Irish Academy has recommended a foreign language be made compulsory. Ireland is the only country in the EU, along with Scotland, that does not have a foreign language compulsory at some stage of education.
Ó’Riordain says the lack of success of Irish being a compulsory language “mars our thoughts” on any such
move. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is on the record saying he believes Irish should not be compulsory at Leaving Cert level, so it would seem unlikely foreign language learning will be made compulsory under the present Government.
Meanwhile Ó’Riordain believes trainee teachers should have the option to do courses in foreign languages in training colleges, so teachers can diversify into foreign language teaching if and when required.
Despite any recommendations, the present economic situation poses enormous difficulties, says Ó’Riordain. “No one has any problems with more exposure to foreign languages, but we are very restricted (with the current economic climate). We already have an overloaded curriculum and adding teachers will cost more”.
Perhaps, though, it may just be that those who learn foreign languages have the choice to stay in Ireland and work. And those that don’t, leave.