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Ireland needs to reconsider foreign languages

By Claudia M. Zedda

UCC has a student body of more than 20,000 people, of which 3,000 are international students. Our campus welcomes students from over 100 countries, each with its different history, culture, and language. Yet, many Irish people are not able to speak a foreign language. 

Ireland itself is home to two main languages, Irish and English. Even though English is currently the most spoken language in the country, Irish is the national and first language of Ireland. In the whole world, there are around 1.2 million people who can speak Irish. Of this number, 170,000 people speak Irish as their first language. A census conducted in 2016 estimated that only about 10.5% of respondents spoke Irish on a daily and weekly basis. When considering active speakers, that number dropped to 4.2%. But what about foreign languages? 

According to Eurostat, over 70% of Irish people cannot speak a foreign language. This compares to only 1.1% in Luxemburg and 35.1% in the UK. While in most European countries it is mandatory to learn a foreign language in schools, this does not apply in Ireland. While children experience bilingualism from an early age being exposed to both English and Irish, Ireland is one of few countries which does not offer a foreign language to pre-school or primary school children. Secondary school students can choose to pick up a foreign language, but it remains optional for the Leaving Certificate. Although 70% of students take up a foreign language for their LC, only 4% decide to continue the study of languages in higher education, reports professor Jennifer Bruen from DCU. 

In today’s increasingly interconnected society, being able to speak a foreign language is a vital skill that opens up thousands of doors. Whether you decide to learn Spanish to go on holiday to Formentera or pick up some French to be able to work in Paris, there are many benefits related to language learning. First and foremost, it allows you to connect with others. Being able to communicate in a different language is one of the most rewarding feelings you’ll ever experience. In particular, communication with people from different backgrounds and cultures enriches your knowledge and allows you to reach out to people you would have never talked to before. You’ll be influenced by a new culture, make new friends, and feel like you’re a local in a place you have never been before. 

In your professional career, a second or third language can give you a meaningful advantage compared to your monolingual peers. You could have the same professional skills, but you’d be able to use them in a country (or countries) your colleagues won’t have access to. You will be able to do business internationally, and you won’t be confined to your own national market. Many employers are now looking for professionals with excellent communications skills, often in more than one language. Additionally, language skills also lead to increased salaries and hiring bonuses. Whatever your career aspiration might be, speaking a foreign language will make you 10 steps ahead. 

If these two reasons are not enough to make you want to learn a foreign language, here’s a third. Many studies and research proved the cognitive benefits or learning languages. People who speak more than one language have improved memory, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, multi-tasking ability, better listening skills and enhanced concentration. Multilingual individuals also show signs of better creativity and flexibility. Studies also showed that the brain activity of bilingual seniors was much more efficient, more like those of young adults. Knowing a second language can postpone the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s by an impressive 4.5 years, independently of education and immigrant status, according to the American Academy of Neurology. 

“Those fluent in only one language may soon find themselves without a job” reports the Irish Mirror. Employers in Ireland have expressed concerns about a future shortage of candidates with a second language. On Jobs.ie, the jobs requiring a foreign language make up 4% of the total jobs posting. On the website, 29% of those require workers to be able to communicate in German, followed by French (22%), Dutch (13%), Italian (6%) and Spanish (6%). General manager of Jobs.ie Chris Paye affirmed: “In today’s competitive jobs market, an extra language competency can often be the key differentiator between you and another eligible candidate.” Even though Ireland benefits from being an English-speaking country in a world where English is the primary language for international communication, this might not be enough. Now that the UK has left the EU, relationships with non-English speaking countries will be more important than ever, as many international companies set up their European headquarters in Ireland. 

Whether you want to pick up a foreign language as a hobby, for travelling, for its mental benefits or for improving your CV, you definitely won’t be wasting your time.