Government plan to promote broader language education

New languages for Junior Certificate students, Chinese as a Leaving Certificate subject, and formal school courses in Polish all feature in government plans to redress shortfalls in the learning of foreign languages.

A 10-year strategy to be launched in the next few weeks will seek to prioritise the measures being taken to strengthen the country against the global move away from English as the only major international language.

Previous comparisons show the level of uptake of foreign languages in Ireland is poor, particularly compared with other EU countries. While Ireland is particularly poor on languages taught at primary level, the plan is to leave consideration of introducing them for older pupils to a wider review of the primary curriculum.

With the focus largely on second-level, but also on some third-level measures, Education Minister Richard Bruton believes the relatively unique scenario of two languages being taught in Irish schools from an early age should give students additional skills for learning other tongues.

He also referred to the language skills from hundreds of other countries among the strong communities of new Irish people.

Plans to establish full Leaving Certificate courses in Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese will be prioritised, but would require new initiatives like shared classes combining students from neighbouring schools, or more online teaching resources.

While students can take these as non-curricular subjects for Leaving Certificate currently, and might also soon have them as short course choices at junior cycle, the programme to be taught is not set nationally and they are not included in formal class timetables.

The minister said the forthcoming strategy acknowledges the need for “a very significant change of mindset” on foreign-language education.

“The world is changing rapidly and we must plan through our education system for that changing world. Assumptions that held true even a couple of years ago about the place of English as the international language of communication are no longer solid.

“In the context of Brexit, the rise of the non-Western powers, the challenge of integrating new communities and our increasingly diversified export strategies, we must change the way we think about language learning in Ireland.”

Among the key targets will be to have all students taking a foreign language during the junior cycle of second-level education by 2021, with additional subject choices to be provided.

A 10% increase in the number of Leaving Certificate students taking foreign language subjects, but particularly in widening the number of languages studied.

Although there is some increasing uptake of others at its expense, French remains by far the most common EU language studied for the Leaving Certificate.

With employers and exports in mind, a 20% increase in third-level students taking a foreign language will be targeted, with a particular focus on increasing numbers on international business and ICT programmes.

The strategy also seeks to increase by 50% the numbers participating in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, on which nearly 4,000 third-level students study abroad for part of their courses.

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