The Importance of Languages in the Northern Ireland Curriculum

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 17 October 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”
‒Ludwig Wittgenstein

The current debate about an Irish Language Act has generated much healthy discussion about how we view and manage different languages in Northern Ireland. While on holiday recently in Belgium, I was struck by how well they manage having a number of official languages; French, Flemish and German. (60,000 Belgians have German as their first language). It was also remarkable how many Belgians spoke English.

 “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart”
‒Nelson Mandela

We could do well to learn how to manage our own cultural diversity as well as they do and see it as a benefit rather than a problem. The impact of the refugee crisis was also very evident in Brussels with hundreds sleeping rough in railway stations and shop doorways and armed soldiers patrolling the streets. It underlined for me that in spite of the challenging realities of 2017 we cannot isolate ourselves from the wider, increasingly interconnected world. Here in Northern Ireland, we are beginning to adapt to newcomers with different languages and cultures and better facilitate increasing numbers of foreign visitors.  We are still, however, light years away from a situation where workers in shops and hotels can switch easily from English to French, German, Italian or Spanish to deal with visitors in the way I saw happen in Belgium. We should refocus the conversation and explore the idea that multilingualism can be a real benefit and positive force for good in our society.

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own”
-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

ASCL discussed this issue recently as part of their Great Debate project. Ian Bauckham ASCL President 2013-2014 suggested that; “no education in my view can be worthy of the name without an understanding of the diversity of ways in which human beings express their thought, not least because the thoughts are in some ways shaped and conditioned by the media of their expression. Not only is this aspect of learning central to the enterprise of education, it is also an essential precondition of being able to inhabit a diverse world, and a crucial safeguard against the bigotry that says 'my way is the only or best way'”.

In Canada the issue of teaching children a second language is now a national priority and research into their bilingual education has found positive benefits for children’s development overall;

“In addition to the official commitment to a national policy of second-language acquisition and bilingualism, immigration has transformed Canada into a rich multilingual and multicultural nation....

The results of numerous studies demonstrate that childhood bilingualism is a significant experience that has the power to influence the course and efficiency of children’s overall development. The most surprising outcome is that these influences are not confined to the linguistic domain, where such influence would be expected, but extend as well to non-verbal cognitive abilities”.

Kars4Kids is a nationally-recognised non-profit organisation that funds educational and youth programs including afterschool and extracurricular programs, summer camps, mentorship and tutoring. They report that many educators and other professionals have established the fact that learning a new language is more than simply a linguistic-based activity. Focusing on a foreign language provides a child with an opportunity to increase their skills in cognitive-based problem solving. These types of problem solving skills involve the use of in-depth critical considerations, mental flexibility, as well as moderate levels of creativity. Students that have learned a second language or are in the process of learning a second language have been evaluated using standardized testing procedures in schools. Surprisingly, these children received higher scores in more than just the verbal aspect of the tests. They also scored higher in mathematics.

In contrast here in Northern Ireland the Primary Modern Languages Programme was scrapped in 2015 as part of Department of Education's cuts for the new financial year. Four hundred and thirteen schools in Northern Ireland have had staff come in to teach Spanish, Irish or Polish. Eighty-six teachers were employed under the scheme, most working in a handful of schools for a few hours at a time. The Department of Education said the decision was regrettable but necessary, given the budget cuts they are facing and the fact that the scheme cost £900,000 a year. It was also suggested that schools fund the classes from their own budgets. The impact the decision will have on language learning further down the line is hard to quantify, but in England, languages have been made compulsory in primary schools, and Scotland have just invested £7.2m in the teaching of a second language in primary schools.

In Northern Ireland, an evaluative review of provision for additional language learning in primary schools was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Languages Council, established with the support of and funded by the Department of Education. The work of the Council is underpinned by the belief that the development of language skills in Northern Ireland is vital for economic prosperity, social cohesion, and the acceptance of diverse cultural identities. Like the examples above, this report also found that research suggests that additional language acquisition offers significant cognitive as well as social and economic benefits, and that young learners have a particular capacity to learn a new language successfully. Although in Scotland and in England learning an additional language is a statutory part of the curriculum in primary schools, in Northern Ireland this is not yet the case. Long established schools in the Irish Medium sector also point to the wider developmental benefits of multilingualism for their pupils.

The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, in 2014, highlighted the fact that poor language skills also act as a barrier to a successful economy. Almost half of businesses claim that language barriers influence whether, when and where to enter international markets. A BCC survey highlighted that the extent of the language deficit in the UK is truly serious: up to 96% of businesses had no foreign language ability for the markets they serve. The largest language deficits are for the fastest developing markets.

Having had to manage a school budget myself I realise the tough decisions necessary in this current financial climate, but as educators, we must pause and consider the wider, long-term consequences for our economy and our children’s development of failing to prioritise language teaching in this rapidly changing world.

The Benefits of Learning a Second Language

This interesting article outlines the benefits of learning a second language from birth and these include: better multitasking; reduced biases; a more successful career, etc.  The full article is available here: 


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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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