Language Lazy: Why Are the Irish So Bad at Mastering a Second Language?

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Features writer Eleanor Brooks explores the lack of proper bilingualism among Irish students compared to their European counterparts. Drawing on her own Erasmus experience in Berlin she questions why exactly Irish students seem to fall down on mastering a second language.

When I spent my Erasmus year in Berlin I went with the determination to master the German language. I envisioned myself speaking the infamous language on a daily basis and nailing the widely coveted accent. By the end of the year the infamous guttural tones of Deutschland would roll from my throat with ease.

In retrospect, how wrong I was. I had forgotten to account for the advanced English proficiency of the average Berliner and the German penchant for bluntness. It proved a lethal combination.

Within the first few weeks my average conversation with a German went like this: Five minutes would pass while I blundered and blustered in German, befuddling gender articles and pronouncing words with a high-pitched, South County Dublin twinge.

Taking pity on me (and also having run out of patience) the poor, unfortunate, German victim of mine would stop me mid-sentence with a pained expression on their face and suggest we switch to English. The reason they gave was always the same: speaking English would be easier for both of us.  

In Ireland I had been proud of my German ability, but compared to the English-speaking Germans I encountered I was nowhere near bilingual. The same proved to be true when I compared myself to other European-Erasmus students, amongst whom English was always the collectively spoken language. We could converse on any topic: current affairs, economics, philosophy etc., no matter how poncey our conversation they could always speak eloquently and fluently.

Given how well regarded the Irish education system is, it is troubling that we are falling so far behind in our language abilities. The average Irish student can manage the ‘oul cúpla focal as Gaeilge and can get by in a third language, but anything beyond asking for directions and you’ve lost us. Bi-lingualism is a rare talent, reserved for the exotic few that have a parent from foreign lands or who choose to study a language in college.

‘Bi-lingualism is a rare talent, reserved for the exotic few that have a parent from foreign lands or who choose to study a language in college’

The reasons for this are manifold and the years dedicated to Irish only account for part of it.

Thanks to the English Empire’s cultural colonisation both on home turf and abroad, English quickly became the most widely spoken language in the West and is currently the unofficial global business language internationally. This has led us to both the reasonable and unreasonable expectation that no matter where we travel, all interactions will be conducted through English. Reasonable because, granted, more often than not this is the case. Unreasonable, because it is pretentious of us to travel to a foreign country anticipating that they speak our language considering we do not extend them the same courtesy. At most we will attempt to learn the basics of their language but even this formality can be dispensed with.

Having English as a first language automatically gives us an advantage over our peers, but only if we persevere to master an ‘unnecessary’ second language. Sadly in Ireland we have come to use English as a crutch. Remove the need to speak a language and you will take with it the impetus to learn it.

For the majority Europeans the opposite is the case. A high-level of English is necessary just to level playing field and it transforms their language learning habits. In most European countries foreign languages are taught at a young age and the students themselves are far more aggressive and autonomous in their learning approach. They see beyond its limitations as a school subject and recognise it for what it is, a means of communication.

This willingness and eagerness to learn allows English to be taught at a much higher level in schools than it would otherwise, and students progress at a faster pace.

Comparatively, foreign languages are taught at a much older age in Ireland because the initial focus remains on Irish. Time-wise we already face a disadvantage. Secondly, monotonous, uninspiring curriculums that under emphasise the spoken word has meant that teaching languages in Irish classrooms resembles pulling teeth.

The core reason, however, remains that most Irish people view learning a language other than English as an exercise in redundancy, attested by our inability to speak Irish following a fourteen year learning span. This is of course a sweeping statement but a 2006 EU study found that Ireland was the member state with the highest number of citizens unable to speak a language other than their mother tongue.

‘A 2006 EU study found that Ireland was the member state with the highest number of citizens unable to speak a language other than their mother tongue’

This might sound harsh and admittedly, to reduce our lack of bi- or tri-lingualism to pure laziness or lack of interest would be unfair and reductive. In some ways we are at a disadvantage by having English as our mother tongue.

In comparison to most European languages English is actually a relatively easy language to learn. Compound this with the ubiquitous nature of English in mainstream media, films, TV and music, and the wide exposure to English makes it easy for most Europeans to pick it up almost via osmosis.

Additionally, with the general structure of national and international bodies and societies posed towards communicating through English, the system is actually pitted against English speakers trying to learn a foreign language.

Had I been so inclined, I could have spent my entire Erasmus barely speaking a word of German beyond the something phrases accumulated by every Erasmus student: ‘Hallo’, ‘Danke’ and ‘Ein Bier, bitte.’ Germans are particularly eager to practise their English and it required extreme tenacity on my part to ensure that any conversations I had were through German rather than English. I would insist up to ten times within a single conversation that we switch back to German because I was determined not spend hundreds of hours in a German classroom only to speak English in Germany.

Our lack of multilingualism has graver consequences than merely being labelled as ignorant every-time we travel. By failing to capitalise on the one advantage of our historical ties to the British, our lackadaisical attitude towards learning foreign languages has resulted in Irish people being excluded from jobs in our own country for which we are otherwise qualified. For example many of the global tech players Ireland attracts to set up headquarters in Dublin require fluency in two European languages.

Should Irish students commit to learn a second or third language with the equivalent vigour and determination of our European counterparts it would give us an edge in the international job-seeker’s market, as well as the experiencing the joy of speaking another language.

But to achieve this in a meaningful way would require a drastic change in attitude. Learning a language requires sustained, accumulative and independent learning, and a lack of self-motivation will predispose you to failure. Students need to be inspired by their families, their teachers and by each other.

The methods by which languages are taught are also in drastic need of an overhaul. Curriculums need to shift the focus from reading and writing and ensure that students are first and foremost comfortable speaking the language. As long as the Irish education system continues to view languages as an exam students need to pass we are doomed to remain a uni-lingual nation.

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Eleanor Brooks |  Features Writer

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