IRELAND must prioritise a strong commitment to foreign languages at all stages of the education system.
A strong focus is now required around awareness of the importance of language skills in our education system in the context of Brexit.
Most young Europeans are competent not only in one but two foreign languages. It is important that our young Irish students attain parity with their European neighbours in the area of fluency in European languages which in turn will strengthen their career prospects.
As we start the new school and college year we need to give serious consideration to encouraging students in the area of language skills.
Students, schools and colleges need to be mindful of the importance of competent language skills going forward. Every Irish student should have a personal target of being competent in at least one foreign language by the time they leave college.
The turn around must start at primary level. Apart from English and Irish a third language, with a singular focus on conservational capacity, should be introduced early in the primary cycle. A dedicated fund should be made available to each national school to allow every class to have at least one hour of language conversation per week supplied by a native speaker of the foreign language chosen by the school. A higher level of commitment needs to be applied at second level.
We need to begin a policy of recruiting native speakers of foreign languages as teachers of these subjects at second level. Funding should also be made available to second level schools to recruit native speaking language assistants on short term contracts to improve the conservational fluency of students.
Transition year might also be used by schools and students as an opportunity for an exchange programme with schools in Europe. And of course there excellent web based sites such as Babbel which provide language programmes for free or at modest costs.
At third level every student should be encouraged to look at taking a language module as part of their degree programme. Colleges and students should continue to maximise the increased opportunities now provided by the Erasmus exchange programme. Cheap air fares to European cities have made it much easier for students at all levels to take short intensive courses in a foreign language.
Language proficiency is also about immersing oneself in the culture and life of a foreign country in order to become proficient in a foreign language. If at all possible it would be important to endeavour to study, work and live in a European country for a period.
Third level students in particular should challenge themselves to leave the comfort zone of the English-speaking world and spend a summer working and living in mainland Europe. A target for every Irish college graduate should be proficiency in at least one foreign language.
Fluency in a foreign language will significantly improve a young person’s career prospects. It has been indicated to me by prospective international employers based in Ireland that partly owing to the lack of language skills in this country they are forced to recruit outside of Ireland.
If young graduates wish to travel to broaden their horizons there are no visa problems working in other EU countries. Working in mainland Europe could prove much cheaper than some other, more popular destinations.
Even without the UK the European Union will remain a single market of 450 million people. Language skills are essential if Irish companies and Irish people are to take advantage of this rich and sophisticated market. Countries like Germany and Austria for example have full employment and are now experiencing labour shortages.
Because of its rapidly ageing population, Germany, the most prosperous country in Europe, will have an increasing number of job opportunities in the years to come. Nowadays return flights to many European cities are not much more expensive than a return rail ticket from Cork to Dublin.
This is a unique time to cease the opportunity through our education system and provide strong leadership in the provision of language skills and to this end I would encourage our students, for the sake of their future and their careers, to equip themselves with fluency in at least one if not two European languages. This is the least they deserve.