Modern languages in Irish primary schools

Guest post by Tanya Flanagan, National Coordinator, Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative

The recent Irish government budget announcements included a proposal to abolish the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative with immediate effect. As one can appreciate, we are absolutely devastated by this announcement which comes at the end of a year when we have been congratulated at every review meeting with the Department of Education and Skills in terms of how we have continued to maintain and deliver excellent services while achieving significant efficiencies. We support modern languages in over 550 schools nationally with a core team of just 6 people. We provide training, resources and school-based support as well as funding 300 visiting teachers who deliver the programme in schools nationwide….all within a budget of under €2 million, and not the €2.5 million erroneously quoted in the budget documents.

In terms of policy, we are already years behind our commitments under the Barcelona Agreement and the Lisbon Strategy – these agreements called for systems to be in place to facilitate early language learning of at least two foreign languages by 2010. Even more incredibly, all EU countries, including Ireland, ratified recommendations in November 2011 in which we have pledged to ‘step up [our] efforts’ to implement the Barcelona Agreement! As recently as October the Royal Irish Academy published their National Languages Strategy which called for ‘the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (to)be integrated into the mainstream curriculum, as strongly recommended by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (2005) and the Council of Europe Policy Profile (2008) document, rather than being limited to extra-curricular time and to a portion of schools’. A Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation report also quoted in the RIA strategy states that the widespread but erroneous perception that ‘English is enough’ militates against the kind of plurilingual ambitions and achievements common in non-anglophone EU member states. The most recent strategy and action plan issued by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation argues that ‘the main challenge for Ireland…is to become a truly multilingual society, where the ability to learn and use two or more languages is taken for granted and fostered at every stage of the education system and through lifelong education’.

In such difficult economic times, how can this decision be justified? Over 14 years of expertise will be lost to the system and a whole generation of our children will be placed at an even greater disadvantage as they try to compete for jobs with our fellow Europeans. This decision will result in the only children accessing modern language classes being the privileged classes who can afford to pay for them – a return to the situation of 20 years ago. It will also result in over 300 more teachers on the live register.

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4 Comments on “Modern languages in Irish primary schools”


  1. I’ve not heard of the Barcelona Agreement but I agree with your assessment of the situation~illogical.

    Plurity, especially of language, is critical to 21st century education and sustainable living.

    In Oz we are trying to encourage bilingualism in primary schools in the northern areas where there are high Indigenous Asutralian populations, sometimes the peoples speak 4 languages and not English.

    We encourage high school students to take up a language, but it is not compulsory.

    I can speak a little Japanese and am informally learning Italian, as well as some Arabic from the students I work with. But I really have to lift my game in this area.

    How are they justifying their propososal to eliminate a sustainable and successful project such as this?

  2. Don Says:

    Great post – very well articulated. I know a person who learned French in national school here, got an A1 in French at Leaving Cert this year (in a state school), and has gone on to study French and linguistics in Oxford University. All I can say on the matter is: The Government are, sadly but predictably, very short-sighted on this matter and are, at a stroke, removing future generations of children (should the policy remain in place) from job opportunities that most definitely will become available in other non-English-speaking countries, as well as jobs in Ireland that require another language (other than Irish).

  3. jfryar Says:

    An excellent post that deserves to reach a wider audience and, hopefully, the Minister for Education’s desk.

    But it really shouldn’t surprise us. Successive Irish governments have been extremely reluctant to impliment any substantial changes to our primary and secondary level curriculae. I’d suggest the reason is that such changes would not bear fruit within the policital lifetime of 5 years or so.

    We’ve seen this with Irish where students spend the best part of 12 or more years learning the language and leave school with a smattering of phrases. We’ve seen this with the Task Force on Physical Sciences where recommendations were made, virtually none of which were implimented. We’ve watched as maths scores plummeted in PISA, as universities introduced maths clinics for freshers – in fact, they did nothing until hi-tech companies started whinging and suddenly Project Maths and bonus points for higher maths miraculously appeared.

    Hopefully a few multinational companies, like Google, Facebook, Intel etc will start to complain about languages – the only way you seem to be able to modify the education system in Ireland is if the companies start to complain about economic competitiveness.

    • Nicola Says:

      I am currently living in Spain and working as an English teaching assistant in a bilingual school. I couldn’t agree more with the fact that after learning Irish for many years, most students leave school unable to string a sentence together. HOWEVER, the Irish curriculum and that of Spanish/German/French etc is completely different…I don’t think I would have had the same love for Spanish if I had had to study century old poetry like as with Irish. Spanish was taught in a more practical way; we read short articles instead of long essays and plays and therefore, it was always far more appealing to me (so much so that I now want to be a Spanish secondary teacher.)
      It seems that everyone in Spain is crazy to learn English. Most primary and secondary schools have a bilingual programme and the level of English that some of the students have is incredible….today I showed a video to my second years in the bilingual programme (13-14 years old) on how computers and technology have helped a severly autistic girl communicate with others. Between pausing the video and summarising in English what was said, they were able to follow and understand. In comparison second year language students in Ireland are barely able to give a personal description in their foreign language at this age. Abolishing the modern languages in primary schools initiative will only further decrease Ireland’s chances of gaining a competitive edge in the global job market as we claw our way out of these recessionary times. Nice move Ireland…..


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