Irish lag behind Europeans in language skills

Fewer Irish people can speak a foreign language than in most European countries, as the Government stops teaching languages to 27,500 primary pupils.

The modern languages in primary schools initiative is being closed down to facilitate teacher training to improve general literacy and numeracy. It started as a pilot scheme and teaches French, Spanish, German, and Italian to 27,500 pupils a year at 545 schools.

A European Commission report shows that only in Britain, Portugal, Italy, and Hungary can fewer adults hold a conversation in an additional language.

Although the number who can speak at least one language other than their mother tongue is up from 34% in 2005, the 40% who can includes those with conversational Irish. It compares with a 54% EU average, but the figure is at least 90% in Luxembourg, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

Chinese was chosen by 20% of Irish people as one of two languages they consider most useful for their children to learn, up from 2% in seven years. It is likely to be one of the first subjects offered as a short course in the new-look Junior Certificate for pupils starting second level in 2014.

The number who picked French as a language for their children to learn has fallen from 64% to 50% since 2005; 42% still see German as of use; to their children and 25% picked Spanish, down from 35%.

The low number of pupils learning foreign languages at primary school was highlighted yesterday in a report for by enterprise policy advice agency Forfás.

In a study of skills needed to boost export growth, it said many jobs required high fluency in foreign languages, but conversational use could be valuable. It pointed to Ireland having the lowest level of foreign-language teaching in 27 European countries. The report said it is striking 69% of primary pupils in Britain learn at least one foreign language, compared with 3% here.

“There should be a strengthened focus on language, intercultural awareness and tasters of different languages to foster linguistic and cultural awareness at primary level, to motivate students learning and engagement with languages at second level.”

The initiative’s €2.5m budget is being diverted by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to the State literacy and numeracy strategy. However, a Department of Education spokesperson said the minister could not justify continuing or extending the scheme, even if funding was not an issue, as a 2008 report said modern languages should not be an additional subject because of overload in the primary curriculum.

The department said 81% of students study a continental language up to the end of second level and the Forfás recommendations make a valuable input to considerations of third-level course development.

A Royal Irish Academy report last October that low proficiency in languages was hindering job prospects and the MLPSI should be extended to all primary schools.

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