Irish people love to talk, this is a well-known fact. So well-known that we have our own saying ‘the gift of the gab’ meaning the gift of never shutting up. For a country that loves to have a chat and a bit of craic, more than 70% of us can’t speak any language other than English or Irish making us one of the worst polyglots in Europe.

Irish students enrolled in English speaking schools learn Gaeilge or ‘Irish’ as a second language and pupils enrolled in Gaelscoileanna (schools taught through Irish) learn English as a secondary language, however this is not counted in Eurostat figures as both are official languages of Ireland and not counted as foreign. Therefore, when speaking on the failure of Irish people to learn foreign languages, we can see that it isn’t to fault the ability of Irish people to learn new languages, but finding fault in the Irish schooling system which teach them.

Ireland is almost the only country in Europe in which learning a foreign language is optional post-primary. For most Irish Secondary schools, foreign language is necessary for their Junior Certificate however past that point, learning a foreign language is completely optional and not necessary. Only 8% of Irish pupils learn two or more foreign languages compared with the European average of over 60% and only 7% of Irish 10 year olds learn a foreign language compared with the EU average about 70%. For those students who do pick up a foreign language, even by the time they reach the Leaving Certificate in their last year, they may still struggle to transfer their choice of language into the spoken word and utilise it in writing. This is not remarkable or surprising as students start learning these foreign languages so late into the game that they are given almost no time to build up any true comprehension of it. Irish students can score an Honours A grade in German and still not have any real fluency or confidence in using said language.

French is by far the most popular choice in Irish schools for foreign language, with around 30,000 Irish students studying it every year, that’s over 50% nearly 60% of all Irish students who sit foreign language exams even though France is not Ireland’s largest trading partner. French is a popular choice as a result of how familiar it is to English, considering 40% of English words are derived from French, making it an easier option compared to the likes of German, which is a more challenging language to learn. However, German comes in second with 7,000 students in the Leaving Cert. studying it every year. German is believed to be a challenging but sensible choice of language, as it is predominately used as a Business language in the EU. Spanish is steadily rising in popularity among Irish pupils every year, nonetheless it only rakes in about 3,500 students. Italian alone attracts only 300 students a year and Dutch a mere 30 students. Almost every European language is available to sit for the Irish Leaving Certificate albeit very few or no Irish schools at all have the resources for teaching them.

The National Languages strategy recommends;

  • Formal external assessment of oral proficiency made compulsory for modern languages at Junior Certificate level
  • Advanced proficiency in a third language be made a universal requirement.
  • 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.
  • Sufficient resources be provided to enable the continuation of language assistantship exchanges at third level.
  • 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.

If the Irish government and education systems could follow these five recommendations, I believe that the Irish population can start to regain some respect for themselves and not be labelled as ‘lazy linguistics’. Language is such a crucial skill to possess in this modern multilingual world both for social and work/business related reasoning’s. I am of the opinion, that Ireland should take its responsibility as a European member with sobriety and understand that it needs to prepare its population for European work environments and maintaining interpersonal relationships within Europe without overly relying on interpreters and translators.

by Sarah Jane Hayes Martindale