An ambitious government strategy aims to dramatically increase the number of students taking two foreign languages in state exams despite an acute shortage of qualified teachers for these subjects.
The 10-year foreign language strategy aims to prepare Ireland for Brexit through a series of steps such as potential Central Applications Office (CAO) bonus points for foreign language study, increased availability languages in schools and the introduction of Chinese into the curriculum.
However, a survey of voluntary secondary schools – seen by Irish times – shows that the five most pressing teacher shortages by subject include French and German.
The relatively low number of language graduates in teacher education courses is also unlikely to meet future needs for a number of years.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Richard Bruton said he was confident the new policies contained in the strategy would significantly increase the number of foreign language teachers.
These measures include the possibility of financial incentives to encourage language students to take postgraduate teacher training courses, as well as development opportunities for teachers who may be qualified to teach a language but do not have still had the opportunity to do so.
Although most Irish students study foreign languages at school, surveys show that we lag behind our European counterparts.
For example, around 20% of Irish adults know a foreign language, compared to a European average of 35%.
In addition, French dominates the education system and represents more than half of the languages registered on the Leaving Cert, against German (13%), Spanish (11%) and Italian (1%).
In a statement, Mr Bruton said Brexit meant learning a foreign language was “no longer a luxury for some but a necessity for most”.
“Brexit and the growing importance of non-English-speaking countries in the world means that English-speaking countries like ours will need to place a new emphasis on foreign languages in order to excel in the modern world.”
Actions planned to help change this include:
– Explore the possibility of introducing bonus points to the Leaving Cert for the study of foreign languages in cases where students apply for higher education courses in language-related fields;
– Increase by 25% the number of secondary schools offering two or more foreign languages;
– Increase by 25% the number of students enrolled in two languages in Junior Cert and Leaving Cert;
– Provide additional resources – or “special hours” – to schools to encourage them to offer additional foreign languages; and
– Develop a new mobile group of teachers for minority languages – such as Japanese, Russian, Italian – who could move to different schools.
Concerns about the quality of foreign language teaching have been expressed by employers and in submissions to the new language strategy.
Building on this, the strategy proposes to strengthen the language skills of teachers with a new requirement that all foreign language teachers must pass an independent language proficiency test at a defined level.
It also aims to harness the linguistic potential of the 13% of our population who speak a language other than English or Irish at home.
New language teaching models, such as shared classrooms and blended learning, will aim to enable students who are part of small immigrant communities to develop their heritage language skills.
Curriculum specifications will also be introduced for “heritage speakers” for Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese.
Employers will also have a say in which new languages to add by identifying the main “working languages”.
‘Language champions’ from business and other sectors will be appointed to demonstrate the opportunities for graduates with foreign language skills.
At primary level, consideration will be given to including foreign languages in the upper grades as part of a revision of the primary curriculum.
The possibility of teaching certain subjects exclusively through a foreign language at primary level will also be explored.