This post is occasioned by Sheila Wayman’s excellent article in Tuesday’s “HEALTHplus” supplement of The Irish Times (“Expelling Modern Languages”, 19/6/12).
After 14 years, the government is now axing the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Intiative (MLPSI). Wayman writes:
More than 500 primary schools throughout the State have been participating in the initiative – officially a “pilot” programme – since 1998. It provided funding for the teaching of French, Spanish, German or Italian to fifth and sixth classes for one and a half hours a week.
The reasons for this funding cut are obvious enough. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills says:
“We had to make a decision — would it be rolled out to all schools or not and, given our tough economic circumstances, it was one of those things,”…
How we think about language(s)
There’s a curious discrepancy at the heart of the Department’s decision, which Wayman’s article teases out brilliantly. On the face of it, the reasoning is unassailable:
The money being saved – €2.5 million – is going towards the implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategy, which is costing €19 million a year and will benefit all primary schools, she points out.
“In a time of financial crisis you have to prioritise,” [the Department spokeswoman] adds, and the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, “was very much of the opinion that ensuring ever child who leaves the education system in Ireland is able to read, write and do basic maths was more of a priority than rolling out a pilot project of modern languages at primary school”.
When I first read this, I thought that it made sense: if we had to choose between basic literacy and numeracy, and learning a fancy foreign language, the choice would be clear. But to phrase the choice in those terms is something of a distortion. In fact, it’s pretty much a false dichotomy. This is my favourite section of the article, and it really gave me a jolt:
Schools that will no longer be funded to offer pupils a modern language from next September see a certain irony in the fact that the money is being diverted into “literacy”.
“Nobody in the department has explained to me how learning another language doesn’t make you more literate or how the study of a language doesn’t actually aid your learning of language,” says David O’Keeffe, principal of the Holy Family school in Swords.
“To turn around and say you are going to concentrate on numeracy and literacy by preventing people access to another language is absolutely ludicrous.”
This is a really insightful observation, and the fact that I didn’t immediately spot it puts me to shame too. What this indicates, on the part of the Irish government and, I’ll argue, on the part of Irish society at large, is a completely warped attitude to foreign language. To put it one way, we view English as the norm — this is natural — but anything else is at best simply a deviation from this norm — a less adequate means of shaping the world around us. It’s as if French or German don’t even have a system of numbers or make use of an alphabet which would be of any possible use to an Irish student. This is totally untrue of course — but it shows no small amount of insularity and ignorance to imply, however indirectly, otherwise.
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of awkwardness that comes when speaking clumsily in a familiar, but yet unmastered foreign language. When in conversation, I think it goes something like this:
A says something in French and B hears it.
B must translate this statement into English in her head.
B then formulates a reply. B must now translate this into French in her heard.
B says something in French and A hears it. [repeat]
This is a very crude rendering (it’s more of a fluid, continual thing in real life) but I’m sure many can recognise the difference between this early clumsiness and the later feeling of comfort that can only be described as “thinking in French [or other applicable languages]”. This was an important moment for me when I was staying in a strict French College one summer. The language ceased to be a clunky tool employed by my English-speaking mind and became a new mode of thinking itself. Naturally, because of my limited vocabulary, my French thoughts were pretty rudimentary (this was actually very relaxing — as if my mind had been quieted involuntarily): “I am hungry”; “I am sleepy”; “it is now 11 O’Clock” etc.
This is the crucial first step to a tacit understanding of language as intimately linked (if not inseparable, but let’s not open that can of philosophy worms) with thought. Language interacts with and often shapes our thought in ways we often cannot grasp: myriad problems of philosophy, science and theology have risen and fallen due to simple quirks in our language; the Hopi Indians, for instance, had an entirely different understanding of temporality, such that their own language had nothing resembling our distinction of past, present and future tense. All of this to say in a very roundabout way that foreign language is more than a cipher for our own native tongues; it is a new means of thought, self-contained and wholly adequate.
Complacency, Insularity and Ireland
Moreover, this “new” means of thought isn’t really so much “new”, but contemporary, and simultaneous with our own. In short: lots of people in the world speak lots of languages and it is silly to ignore or forget that fact. It grows more silly everyday. As labour mobility increases, and given high levels of emigration it would seem like a no-brainer to consider learning a foreign language in order to increase employment opportunities. Sadly, we don’t do well in this regard:
At present, Ireland and Scotland are the only countries in Europe where learning a modern language is not mandatory at any stage of the education system.
As Mr. O’Keeffe (the teacher quoted earlier) points out, this fact has political repercussions as much as anything else: “It shows us in a hugely negative light in terms of our attitude towards Europe and towards dealing with people of other nationalities,” he points out. This might seem a tad alarmist, but it is a concern borne out elsewhere in the article:
Belén Roza, education adviser at the Spanish Embassy in Dublin, says the number of students studying Spanish in Ireland has been increasing and the scrapping of the MLPSI is “very narrow minded”.
The embassy tried, she says, “without success”, to have a meeting with the Minister for Education to ask him to reconsider the decision. “We don’t want to interfere with your political priorities,” she says, “but it is a great loss for the students and their families.”
I don’t think Mr. O’Keeffe is too far off then mark when he calls the decision a “political disaster”. A tad extreme, perhaps, but it is certainly a grave matter. Learning a new language is a crucial element of building an enlightened multicultural worldview; “it just opens up the whole world”, says Michael Gillespie who speaks four languages and is a parent rep on the board of management at Holy Family school (the focus of much of this article). It is stressed in the article time and again that learning one language makes it easier to learn more, and that, crucially, it is best started at a young age:
For primary school children learning a foreign language is fun and something different, whereas for older children it is “more like a subject in school”, [Mickael Lenglet of Alliance Française] suggests. “Sometimes they don’t understand it is actually a tool for communication.”
The later we learn about other languages, the more they appear to be subordinate to our native tongues; the more any foreigner we meet is likely to seem like she’s speaking gibberish that requires a key to decipher; gibberish which couldn’t possibly express the complex thoughts that float in our heads and flow from our mouths. It’s not a great leap to suggest that complete unfamiliarity with any language but your own is a major contributing factor (as one part of a general lack of education) to racial intolerance. It dehumanises a person, to think that they speak a language which is not worth knowing, or more accurately, which is not as good, somehow, as our own. It’s a difficult thought to articulate. It speaks to an attitude that considers English the only language one needs or should need to get by in the world; it conjures up an image of the blundering, arrogant tourist who demands answers or barks commands in a language foreign to the place he visits, and who has made no effort to understand or make allowances for any kind of communicative barrier. This is a caricature, obviously, but one that has an uncomfortable resonance for any (over-)sensitive traveler.
Anecdotal evidence, suggested in this article and elsewhere tells us that English-speaking people traditionally fare poorly when it comes to speaking many languages.
[Pat O’Mahoney, principal at Glór an Mara National School in Tramore] spent 12 years in the Middle East where he was very conscious that it was the English-speaking people – Australians, North Americans, British and Irish – who were the ones with only one language. “Everybody else had two or three or four – and this ain’t going to help any,” he adds.
I’ve seen this phenomenon myself at countless events of the European Youth Parliament (EYP). Because the official languages are English and French (effectively just the former), we (Irish delegates) never had to do much work in this regard, but we were constantly amazed by bilingual and trilingual fellow Europeans who would occasionally correct our own usage, such was their skill. (once I had the surreal experience of reassuring a participant — who spoke about six languages in all — that her English was in fact adequate (it was excellent)). I’ve made very good friends that speak English so well I routinely forget it is their second language. These young people (between 16 and 21, on average) are not superhuman (written English for official documents always has to be corrected by native speakers); they simply grew up in societies where learning a second language was acceptable and, in some cases, seen as necessary. They didn’t have to live in countries such as Belgium, where there are at least two widely-spoken national languages; they just had to have the right facilities and, moreover, the right mindset. Living on an island, disconnected from the continent does not help us here, but there are steps we can take. One of these was taken in the UK:
As the MLPSI is being dismantled, [Ruairí] Quinn’s counterpart across the water, Michael Gove, just last week announced that all children are to be taught a foreign language from the age of seven, under reforms to their national curriculum. The introduction of compulsory language teaching in primary schools in England is aimed at boosting the numbers of students taking languages as exam subjects at secondary level.
The title of this section alludes to Ireland’s complacency — this wasn’t prompted solely by generalised statements about our national character. It can be seen in concrete terms in our government’s lack of action. Shockingly, the MLPSI never graduated beyond “pilot” status even after 14 years, despite numerous recommendations during the boom that it be extended to all national schools:
Last August a national languages strategy published by the Royal Irish Academy called for the initiative to be integrated into the mainstream primary curriculum, as was strongly recommended by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs back in 2005 and the Council of Europe Policy Profile three years later.
The problem, opines Tony Donoghue, head of education policy at Ibec, is that the MLPSI was not mainstreamed.
In hindsight, it really annoys me that this wasn’t considered a priority. For all our prodigious talk of a “smart economy”, this seems like a fairly stupid oversight. Why? When looking at the many Irish people looking for work at home or forced to emigrate, it becomes painfully clear. Our choice of destinations is quite limited. Obviously, English-speaking countries top the list, but these can have the distinct disadvantage of (often restrictive) visa requirements. As anyone without a college degree or long since graduated can tell you, getting a work visa to, say, the USA is no mean feat. Not cheap either. More than a few will surely choose to stay on illegally, knowing that their visa renewals might be refused. Also, travelling to antipodal regions such as Australia or New Zealand makes expats increasingly isolated from their former homes and makes return visits difficult and costly.
This bothers me because there is such a glaring hole in our scheme of considerations here, and that is the fact that we are members of the EU, which means that there are 26 other member states which might serve as potential places of work, without anything more complicated than booking a flight, finding accommodation and opening a bank account. This is such an exciting privilege that I’m sad more people don’t/can’t take advantage of it. That’s not to say that I don’t know many people who now have successful jobs in Brussels and other such places, working with the EU or with NGOs or think tanks and who don’t necessarily have perfect second language skills — but not all continental cities are so easy for anglophones.
Also, lest this be considered as an argument for enacting policies solely because they promote emigration, it needs very little to demonstrate that a foreign language is also an immense advantage in the domestic job market. Due to the fact that countless multinational companies have set up their headquarters here, people are frequently wanted for multilingual tech support, translation, and many other fields. One look at a major job website will make this clear: I just entered a search on Monster.ie for all fields and all locations in Ireland. On the first two pages, 12 jobs were listed that required French, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese or Dutch — while others were labelled as “multilingual” positions. During my own long, dark unemployment of the soul, I saw this time and time again, each listing more depressing to me than the last. We are selling ourselves short, as a skilled, highly-educated population, if we think that learning one or two more languages is beyond us.
At this stage, the elephant in the room is starting to make noises, and someone should probably see if it’s OK, decorum be damned.
This could potentially be seen as an argument for diverting resources away from the teaching of Irish into foreign languages. This fact, uncomfortable to many, is brought out in the article in Wayman’s conversation with Tony Donoghue:
“It has become a very serious business issue. You just have to look at the jobs that are advertised on the main jobs website and you will see that a lot of them demand a second language” – and that’s not Irish.
Regardless of your feelings about the Irish language, one thing I feel these data cannot be used to argue is that this is a question of teaching Irish or Foreign languages. As I we often see, it is entirely possible for people to comfortably learn two or more languages. A new plan for language teaching is sorely needed and I believe that foreign languages should receive at least as much attention as Irish. From an economic perspective, it is inexcusable to do otherwise.
Opening up the World
I feel that I’ve dwelt enough on icky, pragmatic reasons for learning another language; so I’ll close by looking at what I’d consider to be more worthwhile, if fluffy, considerations.
The question arises: which languages should we learn?
To this I’d answer: unless you’re considering this question from an economic point of view, it really doesn’t matter; whichever ones you like!
Purely as a means to expand our knowledge and understanding, new languages are worth learning: “Once you walk through the door of one culture, then you are ready to walk through the door of all cultures”, says Ronan Gillespie. Like music, like computer code, like economic models and scientific theorems, spoken/written languages construct and frame a new world, each in themselves, each has its own beautiful facets… or so I’m told.
I should probably confess at this point that I have, strictly speaking, no second language myself, and that this is as much an aspirational post as anything else. I have shamefully scant Irish and am slowly building my French back up to a working level after slipping from the lofty peak of my A1 in the Leaving Cert.
I’m always sad when someone tells me about the joys of reading Proust, Flaubert, Nietzsche or Homer in their original French, German, Greek etc. (they don’t tell me this too often, don’t worry.) It doesn’t stop me from enjoying translated works, but it does always leave me wondering.
I wondered especially when, at a literary open reading, a friend recited the closing section of Dante’s Paradiso, first in English and then in Italian. The English was beautiful, but he quoted T.S. Eliot in saying that the Italian was some of the greatest poetry ever written, above anything in the whole of Shakespeare:
O luce etterna che sola in te sidi,
sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi!
Quella circulazion che sì concetta
pareva in te come lume reflesso,
da li occhi miei alquanto circunspetta,
dentro da sé, del suo colore stesso,
mi parve pinta de la nostra effige:
per che ’l mio viso in lei tutto era messo.
Qual è ’l geomètra che tutto s’affige
per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova,
pensando, quel principio ond’ elli indige,
tal era io a quella vista nova:
veder voleva come si convenne
l’imago al cerchio e come vi s’indova;
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
se non che la mia mente fu percossa
da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.
A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.
Eliot needn’t be right, but I just wish I could read it like that.