Why are we so bad at languages? There’s no mystery there. Most students in Ireland take up a foreign language for the first time when they enter secondary school at age 12 or 13; by this stage most of their counterparts in other EU countries are already well ahead – even fluent – in a second language. The lack of any oral component in Junior Cert foreign language exams compounds the problem. It should all begin much earlier, of course, at nursery or primary school. But just 15 per cent of primary-school children take a modern European language – and only in fifth and sixth classes.
There are two questions which get raised almost every year with regards to the Irish education system: why are we so bad at maths and why are we so bad at languages.
Declaration of Interest – language grad with a background in translation and interpreting and international administration.
We are bad at languages – to a great extent – because we are lazy. Yes, we start too late. I’m not sure we need to start really early in the primary system – we really need to concentrate on basic literacy and numeracy at that level (and we’re really not fully up to scratch there. I don’t see any real need to start a foreign language before the age of 10 but I don’t think we should really be starting any later than 11 either. So the 15% of primary students who get it in fifth and sixth class are doing well.
But a key impediment to getting Irish kids to do well in languages very often is “sure everyone speaks English”. Our radio stations rarely if ever play any foreign pop music. When I was fifteen or sixteen there were two French songs in the charts. When I was about 25, there was maybe one Spanish song in the charts. There are musicians producing fairly decent pop in French, Spanish and German. They’re not typically performing at the Eurovision.
There is a lot of scope to improve media access for teenagers to foreign languages – I think TG4 gives us France24 from time to time and most cable providers have Euronews in a bunch of languages. In my view, even if you start at 13, there’s no excuse not to be reasonably competent in a foreign language at the age of 18. The opportunities are there; DVDs can be orders with English subtitles if they are in French, or with French subtitles if in French. I learned a lot of French from watching Beverly Hills 90210. Sad to admit it, but still….Radio is available online. There are millions of sites appropriate for teenagers available in French and Spanish and German.
Put simply, the opportunities are there. I don’t think it’s only that we start learning late. I think we just can’t be bothered.