Breaking down barriers: it’s up to Trinity to facilitate online language exchanges

Irish people are statistically less likely to speak foreign languages than their European counterparts – college could help to change that

Parlez-vous une langue étrangère? Just 13% of the overall Irish population describe themselves as multilingual in a language other than Irish or English, according to figures from the last census. Many European countries share multiple borders which in theory should provide more opportunities to learn different languages. Ireland, in contrast, only shares one border, and both sides speak either Irish or English as their first language. In this sense, Ireland is at a disadvantage; out of 28 different country populations aged 16-65 surveyed within the EU, not including Ireland, 35% can speak one foreign language and 21% can speak two foreign languages. 8% of these populations can speak three or more languages.

Famine, recession, J1s: historically, the Irish population has spread worldwide. Although those who have moved abroad long-term may have adapted to their environments by learning the native language of their new home, it has not made waves back in Ireland. It’s disappointing that there is not more of an emphasis on speaking more than one language in Ireland.

“It’s disappointing that there is not more of an emphasis on speaking more than one language in Ireland.”

As Ireland’s leading university and located in the heart of Dublin, Trinity could change this national attitude towards the aversion to learning new languages. Learning another language breaks down barriers and makes skills more transferable — this realisation needs to be recognised nationally and Trinity could pave the way for this change of attitude institutionally. Just because you don’t study a language as part of your degree doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea of learning a new language entirely. As the eighth international university in the world, many students coming from abroad to study at Trinity know this all too well. Accrediting language modules as electives or extracurriculars as part of an overall degree as soon as students enter Trinity could provide a much needed change towards learning an additional language. It would also work in their favour, enabling better employability for its students and graduates.

Being a part of the Erasmus+ programme and the only university in Ireland as part of the European Liberal Arts Network (ELAN), Trinity already provides so many opportunities for students to interact with other countries and cultures. Even before the pandemic ruined most chances of going abroad as part of these programmes, there remained an issue of language barriers for many who don’t take a language course. The problem still lingers but has been largely forgotten about because of the pandemic. The structures that are in place for language electives should provide an opportunity for those who were planning on taking part in the Erasmus+ programme but can’t now because of Covid. Conversely, those who were planning on coming to Trinity from abroad as part of a language exchange should be extended the opportunity to do so online.

“Accrediting language modules as electives or extracurriculars as part of an overall degree as soon as students enter Trinity could provide a much needed change towards learning an additional language.”

You may have seen a viral tweet by someone taking part in the Share Ami scheme run by a French non-profit organisation, Oldyssey. The scheme allows people learning French to chat to elderly people about things they have in common and get to know each other. Trinity could operate a similar scheme to the ageing population in this country, be it for research with The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) or for goodwill in conjunction with the charity ALONE. Loneliness has long been a problem amongst the ageing population in Ireland, even before the pandemic; in this time of isolation we have seen reports of loneliness skyrocket in all age categories but especially in those aged 50 and over. A third of this demographic report being lonely at least some of the time. This could provide a great solution to students from abroad coming to study at Trinity who could improve their English by means of such a scheme while also tackling a loneliness epidemic amongst our elders. What’s more is that Trinity’s national effort with its Tech 2 Students scheme, which aims to fight social and educational exclusion by providing laptops to students, shows that they have the capacity to operate such an initiative, or at least try to pilot such a scheme.

“By learning a new language, whether it’s through online exchanges or experiencing it in a post-pandemic world where it’s spoken, we can gain a whole new insight into a different part of the world and tap into a new way of thinking.”

What strikes me every now and again is that your best friend could be somewhere out in the world, and what separates you from talking to them is a language barrier. Languages unite people and cultures. By learning a new language, whether it’s through online exchanges or experiencing it in a post-pandemic world where it’s spoken, we can gain a whole new insight into a different part of the world and tap into a new way of thinking. Now more than ever we are living through extreme periods of isolation and loneliness. Learning a new language is one way we can overcome this and Trinity should support students’ efforts to do so.

Dearbháil Kent

Dearbháil Kent

Dearbháil Kent is the Comment Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister student of Latin.