[lg policy] Irish students lost in translation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 8 15:23:29 UTC 2011

Irish students lost in translation


Ireland is miles behind when it comes to foreign language skills – a
major drawback for students and the economy

THE BANK of alternate words for saying “hello” and “goodbye” among the
majority of Irish people is often limited to “bonjour” and “au
revoir”. Exporters, investors and educationalists blame our limited
word bank on a “historical hangover” with French. But now it is
becoming clear that a country with conservative foreign language
ambitions must latch on to emerging trends, stockpile the language
bank and exchange pleasantries – and much more – in a variety of

Russian, Chinese and Spanish have become the second language of choice
for schoolgoers world-over as countries seek to tap into the markets
of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Ireland is miles behind. Here, French remains the language of choice
for 26,766 (49 per cent) of Leaving Cert students this year, even
though France is not one of our major trading partners and French does
not appear in the top 10 most commonly spoken languages globally.

At a time when the Germans are propping up the Irish financial system
and bidding to exert their European influence, just 6,955 (13 per
cent) Irish students took the subject in 2011. Overall, only 8 per
cent of pupils in Ireland learn two or more languages compared with a
European average of more than 60 per cent, according to Eurostat

Google’s headquarters in Dublin, which employs more than 1,500 people
and a sales team that deals with 56 countries, places major emphasis
on employing people who have a “high degree of proficiency to the
level of a native speaker” according to Google’s European boss, John

The requirement for foreign languages in Google is primarily in the
advertising, sales and customer support teams, where they have more
than 1,500 people employed. Google has positions available on its
Danish, French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Swedish and Portuguese teams.
“There is no doubt that the proficiency in languages is relatively low
[in Ireland] with a concentration on a few key languages such as
French, Spanish and German.

More than 50 per cent of students who sat a language exam in the
Leaving Certificate last year took French, even though France is not
our largest trading partner and the language is spoken in relatively
few countries,” Herlihy says.

“There is a huge opportunity for Ireland if we can adapt our education
system to allow for the studying of more languages. Indeed, we need to
do so if we are to be a truly open economy operating in the global

He says it is “worrying” that Ireland is the only country in Europe
(along with Scotland) where a foreign language is not compulsory at
any stage of the mainstream education curriculum.

Orna Holland, EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) staffing
manager at Facebook, says 75 per cent of their users are based outside
of the United States, making multilingual and multicultural skills
essential. “We believe that Irish students should be encouraged to
consider language skills as a complement, if not core, to whatever
course of study they embark upon,” she says.

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.

Deirdre McPartlin, manager of the Dusseldorf office in Enterprise
Ireland, is among those concerned at the language trends here. “The
lack of people with German language skills in our exporting companies
is a major contributing factor to why we have never managed to fully
exploit the opportunity the market affords,” says Mc Partlin.

With so much focus directed at promoting science and maths in recent
years, the area of language skills has struggled to command the same
attention. At the heart of the complacency is a misconception that
globalisation simply means that everyone need only speak English.

In reality, however, languages enable someone to research their
market, understand the local factors, interpret the moves of
competitors and appreciate the cultural nuances in a country.

The European Council’s Language Policy Division recently laid out in
stark terms for Ireland that the main challenge for this country is to
move away from “an official but lame bilingualism” and become a truly
multilingual society. Two weeks ago, the newly published National
Languages Strategy bluntly stated that Ireland is the only country in
Europe, other than Scotland, where a foreign language is not
compulsory at any stage of the mainstream educational curriculum.

“The lack of coherent language policies at both institutional and
national levels means that Irish citizens are often denied
high-quality language-learning experiences and opportunities,” the
report stated.

Tony Donohoe of IBEC says people simply prefer to buy goods and
services in their own language. And the fact that Ireland is now one
of the largest exporters per capita of internationally traded services
in the world makes this a particular issue.

Of the 339 companies that participated in IBEC’s 2010 Education and
Skills Survey, more than 10 per cent identified languages as an area
in which they are likely to experience an “occupational skills gap” in
the coming two-year period.

“Over 75 per cent of the world’s population do not speak English and
only 9 per cent speak English as their first language. If we neglect
to ensure adequate availability of foreign language skills in Ireland,
the opportunities of this global market will not be realised,” says

Anecdotal evidence persists that some Leaving Cert students have
difficulty in transferring a foreign language from the textbook into
the spoken word. This should not surprise as students in Ireland start
learning foreign languages relatively late, giving students less time
to build competence.

Overall, the situation is bleak. Students can score an A in a higher
level language subject in the Leaving Cert without any real fluency in
the language. The oral component of language learning is still
underplayed. And the appetite for change in schools and in the
Department of Education does not match that in the wider society and
in the economy.

Nous adorons: THE FAVOURITES

FRENCH is top of the foreign languages league in Ireland. The numbers
studying the language in 2011 reached 26,766. It hit a peak in 2004
when 31,434 students sat the subject for the Leaving Cert.

GERMAN comes in second – 6,955 Leaving Cert students took the subject
this year. It reached a peak in 1997 with some 11,385 taking the exam.

SPANISH is in a distant third place with just 3,645 students. It has
steadily risen since 2004 when 1,755 students took the subject.

ITALIAN attracted 292 students this year.

DUTCH attracted just 29 students.

The overall pattern is the same at Junior Cert level, with French way
ahead with more than 30,000 students, German with more than 9,000,
Italy with just over 300 and Spanish with over 5,600.


Ireland languishes at the bottom of Eurostat league tables when it
comes to the average number of foreign languages studied in primary
and secondary school.

- Almost one in five secondary pupils do not learn any foreign
language in Ireland.

- Two or more foreign languages are studied by secondary pupils in the
Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland.

- Only 8 per cent of pupils in Ireland learn two or more languages
compared with a European average of more than 60 per cent. European
countries have more than seven times as many pupils learning two or
more foreign languages.


... according to the National Languages Strategy:

1 Formal external assessment of oral proficiency made compulsory for
modern languages at Junior Certificate level

2 Advanced proficiency in a third language be made a universal requirement.

3 The optional transition year offered in more than 70 per cent of
schools should be used to explore at least one language and culture
not already encountered at Junior Cert.

4 Sufficient resources be provided to enable the continuation of
language assistantship exchanges at third level.

5 A number of key Irish public figures (from politics, sport,
business, entertainment) with multilingual skills be identified as
language ambassadors who could be used to showcase the benefits of
plurilingualism for Irish people.


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