Education and skills report

Bilingualism post-Brexit

The UK’s departure from the EU has led to a shift in the hierarchy of European language, with Ireland now one of only two majority English speaking countries remaining in the EU. eolas reports on the Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education 2017-2026, which seeks to make Ireland a leader in the teaching and learning of foreign languages.

Launched by former Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, the Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education 2017-26 includes a range of targeted measures to radically improve the fluency of English language in Ireland. It also seeks to increase the diversity of language by increasing the number of languages taught, as well as the number of linguistic immersion programmes available to learners. Published alongside the document was a five-year implementation plan, which charts the strategy’s future application in the Irish education system: a key element of the Action Plan on Education. Fundamentally, the plan seeks to place Ireland at the top of European rankings regarding language education and training services.

Strategic advantage

The strategy anticipates the UK’s impending departure from the EU, a situation which has consequentially led to a transformed European dynamic and a changing status for the English language. Whilst acknowledging this paradigm shift, the strategy also recognises a number of opportunities for linguistic diversity in Ireland. The country’s position as a smaller, more open economy “at the centre of the world” is highlighted as a major advantage, allowing it to maximise its assets. Notably, opportunities are highlighted for the protection and preservation of the Irish language in a document which promotes bilingualism from a young age.

Underpinning all plans for foreign language teaching is the demand for a well-equipped education and training service. This is to be facilitated by several measures outlined in the strategy, which aim to improve proficiency, diversity and immersion. These measures include the introduction of Mandarin Chinese as a Leaving Certificate subject, short language courses for Junior Cycle students, periodic surveys around foreign language learning and “language champions” from a range of sectors to demonstrate the opportunities of bilingualism. The Department for Education and Skills has also signalled its will to introduce bonus points for upper-secondary level language students applying for higher education courses in the same area. Proposed in the strategy are new models for delivering language teaching, including shared classes and blended learning.

Outcomes

The strategy projects a number of positive outcomes. These include increasing the number of post-primary schools offering two or more foreign languages by 25 per cent, increasing the number of students sitting two languages at Junior and Leaving Certificate by 25 per cent and increasing the number of participants in the Erasmus+ universities programme by 50 per cent. The document also commits to doubling the number of foreign language assistants in schools, whilst doubling the number of teachers participating in teacher mobility programmes.

Implementation of the strategy will be now directed by Joe McHugh, who was appointed as Minister for Education and Skills following a Cabinet reshuffle. Initially, the Donegal TD attracted criticism in his role as Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, when he was perceived as holding an inadequate understanding of the Irish language. However, the Minister subsequently earned praise for attaining fluency, to the point where he now conducts lengthy interviews as Gaeilge. McHugh featured in a 2016 RTÉ Radio 1 documentary which followed his efforts to improve his Irish over the course of a year.

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