Ireland should benchmark ourselves against the best English-speaking country in the world for foreign languages and aim to emulate that performance within a decade, the Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton TD said at the TUI conference in Cork recently.
Minister Bruton also said that we should aim to be within the top ten in Europe in this area. The Minister was speaking ahead of the publication of his Department’s ten year strategy for foreign languages, a key commitment in the Action Plan for Education. The plan acknowledges that in general, Ireland, in common with other English-speaking countries, has not, prioritised learning of foreign languages when compared to other countries, tending to regard English as a common international language of communication.
However in the context of Brexit, the increasing global importance of the non-Western countries, and our diversifying markets for exports, these assumptions will no longer hold true.
The Strategy acknowledges that this will require a very significant change of mind set about language learning. It will also take time, commitment and additional resources. However this area must be a major priority. However it also acknowledges that we have major assets to build on. Teaching of Irish means that, unlike many other countries, children become familiar with bilingualism from age 4 and start to learn second language skills early. We now have strong communities of new Irish people who have brought language skills from hundreds of countries around the world.
Outside of the headline ambitions, other targets to be delivered as part of the Strategy include:
- All Junior Cycle students will study a foreign language by 2021
- A 10% increase in the number of Leaving Certificate students taking foreign language subjects, with a particular focus on diversifying the number of languages studied in addition to French, – which is currently by far the most popular language
- Increase of at least 50% in the number of students doing Erasmus, with further targets for improvement in the language proficiency of those coming back from Erasmus, and reductions in the numbers doing Erasmus course through English
- We will aim to support 20% of the entire higher education cohort to study a foreign language, as part of their course. And we will put a particular focus on increasing the uptake of those studying courses relevant to international business and ICT. Competence in languages can be particularly relevant for career progression and is also vital for Ireland’s export sector
Among the measures contained in the Strategy to deliver on these targets are:
- Additional foreign languages to be available at junior cycle
- Introduction of Mandarin Chinese as a Leaving Certificate curricular subject. Together with other measures, this will mean that all of our main target languages in our export strategies will now be provided as curricular leaving cert subjects
- Double the number of schools offering more than two foreign languages as part of Transition Year programmes
- Measures to develop and build on the heritage language skills of immigrant communities:
- Curricular specifications at Leaving Certificate, starting with Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese as heritage languages with accompanying Leaving Certificate examinations. These specifications would replace the existing Leaving Certificate non-curricular examinations in these languages.
- Consideration of the development of additional Junior Cycle Short Courses for heritage languages, mindful of the fact that a short course in Polish already exists
- New models of delivering language teaching, such as shared classes and blended learning. This will allow students who are part of small immigrant communities, within specific schools, to develop their heritage language skills.
- The Department of Education and Skills and the Teaching Council will address the complex issues involved in registering teachers of these languages.
- The Department will work with embassies of relevant countries in delivering on these commitments.
- Exploring the possibilities of using CLIL (content and language integrated learning) techniques by teaching aspects of the primary curriculum through Irish and foreign languages which will equip learners with transferrable language skills. Research shows that teaching languages as a means of communication in this way, rather than as an academic subject to be learned in isolation, can be very effective
- The NCCA, as part of its current review of the Primary School Curriculum will be asked to give consideration to including foreign languages in the senior classes.
- There may be post-primary teachers in the system who are qualified to teach a range of foreign languages but are currently not doing so. Following an audit, if this is found to be the case, then schools, especially their principals and the qualified language teachers, need to be encouraged and supported with dedicated CPD, to diversify the range of languages on offer. Clustering initiatives will be examined in this area.
- Initial Professional Masters in Education programmes for students wishing to graduate as language teachers should agree on minimum Common European Framework of Reference for languages proficiency at both entry and exit points
- Teachers/ lecturers throughout their career should be given CPD opportunities to enable them to enhance their language skills and teaching quality and to engage in innovative pedagogical practice. Such CPD opportunities are currently being provided by the Junior Cycle for Teachers, Professional Development Service, for foreign language teachers as the new Modern Languages specification is being rolled out at Junior Cycle this September (2017).
- The International Education Strategy for Ireland (2016 -2020) provides for the extension of the stay back period from 12 to 24 months for post-graduates. This opportunity will result in more eligible post-graduates, who have studied in Irish higher education institutions, and whose award is granted by a recognised Irish awarding body, at Masters or PhD level, to remain in Ireland for two years to seek employment.
- Greater use of existing programmes is needed for Foreign Language Assistants, both coming to, and going from Ireland to countries where their foreign language is the spoken language
- Develop a benchmark standard against which our performance in languages at all levels can be measured, against ourselves and against other countries, and for objective target-setting. To this end, we will mainstream use of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
- A languages advisory group is to be established under the auspices of the National Skills Council to oversee implementation; membership to comprise representatives of primary, post primary, academic experts and industry.
Speaking ahead of his address at the TUI conference, Minister Bruton said:
“The central aim of our Action Plan for Education is to provide the best education and training system in Europe over the next decade. A central part of this is our ability to support our students with the skills to be global citizens, to understand other cultures and societies, as well as the skills to function and thrive in the modern economy. 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 challenges of integrating new communities and our increasingly diversified export strategies, we must change the way we think about language learning in Ireland.”
“Ensuring that we continue to provide high-quality language learning and promoting competence in both of our official languages, Irish and English, is a very important objective of Government. However we must also target a step-change in the learning of foreign languages in Ireland. That is why I believe we should benchmark ourselves against the best English-speaking country in the world at learning foreign languages and seek to emulate that performance within a decade, and also top ten position overall within Europe in this area. In the context of Brexit and a changing world this must be a major priority.
Teaching of Irish means that, unlike many other countries, children become familiar with bilingualism from age 4 and start to learn second language skills early. We now have strong communities of new Irish people bringing language skills from hundreds of countries around the world. And as a people we have a natural curiosity in other cultures and societies.”