Language learning may prove a lifeline for new graduates

Ireland was once classified as “the world’s most globalised economy”. However, our poor language skills and severe lack of cultural adaptability is unforgivable, especially in such a foreign trade dependent economy.

After recent figures published by the European Union revealed one in five Irish students do not study an additional language, it has been suggested that learning languages could be key to Ireland’s recovery. Furthermore, statistics also showed that just eight per-cent of Irish pupils learn two or more languages, while the average for the continent is more than sixty per-cent.
At a time of economic recession, Ireland should be focusing its efforts on language teaching, as having a workforce which is strong linguistically can be a significant aid to a country’s competitiveness. By following our European counterparts and placing more importance on this issue, the road to recovery from the current downturn could be cut a lot shorter.

This, alongside our other advantages such as expertise and export growth, could prove to make Ireland a prime site for investment once more.
There is increased recognition across Europe of the importance of language learning by undergraduate students. Our strong base of multinational companies means that for Irish students, having more than one language highly enhances their job prospects, particularly within the EU. These companies are always growth-oriented, even in times of recession, and we must look to them to provide a path out of the difficulties in which we now find ourselves. Large multinational corporations have stronger reserves to withstand the global downturn and will be well-positioned to take advantage of the upturn when it comes.

Ireland is a major hub for European Operations Centres (EOCs) where these skills are in demand. This is for the simple reason that language graduates have excellent communication skills, cultural awareness and a broad perspective – usually backed up with the experience gained on a year abroad. Similarly, Irish export-orientated firms demand good written and verbal skills in a foreign language and for many employers in this area, a language can be much more important than your degree.

In 2007 we saw an average of 12 applicants per vacancy but in 2008/09 that figure has increased substantially to 90 applicants for each vacancy. Language skills are particularly useful when combined with expertise in another field and are sure to give you an advantage over other candidates.
The Best Workplaces in Ireland 2009 list was produced by the Great Places to Work Institute Ireland and published by the Irish Independent in March. Eight of the top ten workplaces were Irish branches of multinationals, with Microsoft Ireland coming out on top. Indeed, Microsoft Business Solutions puts it best when it says, “[t]he paradox of the new global market is that in order to succeed in it, you must meet local needs. And, meeting local needs means that you have to speak the local language – wherever you do business”. Multilingual employees pursue global business opportunities more effectively, and employees work more efficiently, thus improving internal operations for these corporations. Graduates with these attributes promote our indigenous sector as vigorously as it promotes our foreign direct investment and are a step in the right direction of an improved labour market.

In Trinity alone a number of services have been made available to students to promote responsible global and local citizenship through foreign languages. While unknown to some, these services provide a major starting point for many graduates and include provisions such as language credits integrated into degree programmes; web-based materials and learning; assistantships organised in the target language countries; and Tandem language exchanges.
So how can we improve the teaching of languages in the country? In Ireland, learning languages in school is about grammar, vocabulary and passing exams. Many international teachers would argue that you teach a love of the country and culture alongside the language if you really want people to learn, remember and enjoy a new tongue. 

As in any subject, the teacher or lecturer’s passion for their subject is passed to their students. In business, you need a language to communicate verbally and to build a relationship and break down barriers with the other party.  The written word is far less important. For instance, music and film can give students a unique insight into the language and culture they are studying and help them to appreciate it more fully. Maybe there needs to be less emphasis on the written and more on how to communicate and have fun in the language.

Therefore, if language teaching and learning is to continue and progress at third-level in Ireland in a coherent fashion, it is essential that Irish HEIs develop and implement comprehensive language policies at institutional level and recognise the importance of this issue not only for students, but for Ireland as a recovering economy.