Winning abroad: addressing Ireland’s struggle with foreign languages


A seminar was hosted on October 22nd, in the Royal College of Surgeons, by EIL Ireland on the subject of ‘Ireland’s Struggle with Foreign Languages,’ with input from academia, industry and graduates on the low priority which languages are given within the Irish education system and efforts to address this situation. As an island nation dependent on service industries and overseas markets, the challenge for Ireland is that less than half the EU population know English well enough to be able to communicate. In the world of international business, where the competence of English is increasingly taken for granted, it is companies with additional language capabilities that will enjoy a competitive advantage.

The panel discussion was chaired by Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times and was primarily focused on the forthcoming framework document on foreign languages in Irish education. Much of the discussion revolved around asking at which point pupils and students should be introduced to languages.

Of particular interest to graduates was the contribution of final year TCD Law and German student, Seánie Kylie, who spoke of his experiences of the Irish educational system in terms of languages. “There is too much of an emphasis on the technicalities of languages and not enough on the desirability of languages. There needs to be more of a focus on the appeal of languages as opposed to just the necessity, languages have a history and a culture of their own, reflective of the people that speak them and that’s what we should be highlighting.”

Tony O’Donohoe, Head of Education and Social Policy with IBEC said that while Ireland continued to attract world-class investment in the shape of multinational companies, these companies “are bemoaning the skills shortage in Ireland when it comes to languages. They find it extremely difficult to fill talent gaps with Irish candidates.” He went on to say that the lack of language fluency does not just impact on foreign companies doing business here but also was to the detriment of the development of Ireland’s own export economy. “It’s a fact that 85% of exports from Ireland are from non-national companies. It is vital that Ireland starts growing its indigenous export sector. The lack of languages is a barrier to this, with many SME’s not considering markets where they perceive that there may be a language barrier.” Mr O’Donohoe added that it is incumbent on the educational system, and indeed pupils and students themselves, to being to address this issue, because “75% of the world’s population do not speak English, and only 9% speak it as their first language.” He welcomed the fact that discussion on languages was taking place, adding that it is ‘the elephant in the living room.’

Other speakers at the event included Tanya Flanagan, Communications Officer with One Voice For Languages (OVFL), who spoke of the need for languages to be taught at a much earlier age, while Philippe Milloux, Director of Alliance Francaise, said that there was a definite need to “change the perception of a language as just a school subject.”

EIL Ireland organised the event as part of marking their 50th anniversary in Ireland, with over 30,000 students having taken part in their programmes. The EIL Study Abroad programme primarily focuses on language immersion programmes abroad for post-primary students. EIL say that their experience of running these programmes has given them “very direct experience of the challenges and struggles we face as a nation in relation to foreign language skills.”

For more on how your career can develop with languages, download our ‘Careers with Languages’ publication here, watch our videos on the benefits of languages and visit our languages sector page on gradireland also has a forthcoming careers with languages fair in UCC on November 6th.

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