There is now a widespread belief that improved foreign language proficiency would allow more Irish people to find work at home and would open up more markets to Irish companies abroad.Indeed, a recent conference in Maynooth brought together educationalists, language professionals and members of the business community to discuss how Ireland's poor record in language learning can be turned around.
According to many of those working in the international business community, the reluctance to promote language education is contributing to our lack of language proficiency. This is especially a problem against the backdrop of major international corporations setting up operations in this country and needing to recruit employees who have the ability to speak another foreign language as well as English.
It is already well-known that English speakers are among the least enthusiastic when it comes to other languages because their mother tongue is already the language of international business. A Eurobarometer survey dating from 2006 shows Ireland languishing at the bottom of the list of EU countries in terms of foreign language competence, yet many companies setting up here are increasingly looking for highly-skilled linguists. For instance, about half of the positions available with the new PayPal operation in Dundalk will require proficient linguists.
It is something of a paradox that the fact we speak English has opened so many doors to us in terms of foreign direct investment, yet it can also be considered a hindrance in that it makes us lazy when it comes to learning other languages. If our mother tongue already is the language of international trade and commerce, why should there be a need to speak German or Russian?
One of the main challenges for Ireland, according to the Dept of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, is for this country to become a truly multilingual society where the ability to learn and use two or more languages is taken for granted and fostered at every stage of the education system. Teaching more more languages in school would be a real help to domestic businesses, for instance, seeking to gain entry to the growing markets in China, Brazil, India and Russia.
In light of the recent new trade agreements signed with China and the growth in developing countries like Brazil and India, the possibility of Mandarin, Portuguese, Hindi and Russian programmes being introduced in second-level and third-level colleges should be considered as part of a root and branch review of language strategy. Given the more intense focus by Irish exporting companies on these so-called BRIC countries, it is clear that having a workforce which can speak the languages of these countries would give Ireland a significant edge over its competitors.
In this context, the recent budget decision to abolish the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) needs to be revisited. Not only has it delivered value for money and helped children across the country achieve valuable learning outcomes, but this retrograde step has come at a time when there is real momentum behind the languages agenda. Every business organisation from IBEC to the IDA is highlighting the language skills deficit in Ireland, which is affecting indigenous companies wanting to capitalise on their export potential and multinationals based here whose markets are international.
Such early modern language learning gives young children an early grounding and interest in foreign languages. Introduced as a pilot project in 1998, over 27,000 children have benefited from the opportunity to learn a modern language, which not only lays the foundation for their language learning within the system, but it also brings other benefits, like an openness to new cultures and enhanced literacy skills.
Many countries have more than one additional language in their primary systems but Ireland and Scotland remain the only countries in Europe where learning a modern language is not compulsory at any stage of the education system. This may well stem from the special role the Irish language has in the primary and secondary school curriculum where it is compulsory up until Leaving Certificate level.
The benefits of early immersion in modern languages is obvious when one considers that children in places such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands are often fluent in English in their pre-teen years. The exclusion of early immersion in other languages and the lack of language development at second-level is an area that is crying out for attention. Any radical reform of the curriculum - which also must address the important area of maths, science and technology studies - need to closely examine this area as well as addressing the central role played by compulsory Irish up to Leaving Cert.