Being bilingual is increasingly the norm in the world of business, according to one sector commentator.

Trilinguals are the new bilinguals

Mickael Lenglet of the Alliance Français tells the Irish Times that not only is speaking two languages typical in business, but it’s also becoming less unusual to encounter professionals who speak three languages or more. “Ireland is the only European country not to have compulsory teaching of a foreign language in primary school. Being bilingual in business is normal; a third language will soon be unavoidable,” he explains.

His comments come as linguistic groups and advocates across Ireland prepare to meet and discuss the future of language learning. The move comes as the newspaper reveals Ireland has fallen “well behind” the other countries of Europe in terms of language skills.

A report released last year by the European Commission reveals 40 per cent of people in Ireland speak two languages. This figure includes those who speak both Irish and English. In terms of how many children of primary school age speak a modern language, the number stands at just three per cent. This is well below the European Union average of 79 per cent.

Kristin Brogan, a lecturer in German, intercultural communication and EU projects at the Institute of Technology Tralee, and a founder of the One Voice for Languages campaign group, says there is a misconception in Ireland that being able to speak English, as well as Irish, is enough. However, she points out that in other parts of Europe it is common for people to speak their mother tongue, English and one additional language as well. Furthermore, English is by far from being the most widely-spoken language in the world, with only nine per cent of the global population speaking it as their native language.

The One Voice group will meet in Dublin in November to discuss ways to reinvigorate language learning in Ireland, following the removal of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) from the curriculum. Ms Brogan explains that when there is government support for an education initiative, such as the recent emphasis in Ireland’s schools on science and technology, it can help improve uptake of the subject. However, a spokesperson for the Department of Education told the news publication that there are currently no plans to reinstate the MLPSI.

Economic value

The ability to speak multiple languages is a major draw for businesses in this era of globalization. However, the Irish Times claims that many big companies with offices in Ireland are having to extend their recruitment efforts overseas in order to find people who have these skills. As a result, Ireland’s economy is missing out.

It is not only Ireland that is falling behind in terms of language learning, but also the UK. Richard Howitt MEP recently told Cambridge News he wants to reverse the current decline in the number of students studying languages at British schools and universities. Foreign secretary William Hague has also spoken out about the value of language skills and his concern the UK is falling behind its European neighbours in terms of these abilities. In September, he opened a language centre at London’s foreign office with the aim of providing diplomats with the ability to improve their language skills.

However, the problem begins long before people begin searching for jobs. The number of young people in the UK selecting a modern language qualification at A-level or in higher education is currently in steep decline. The Guardian reported in August that the number of students studying French this year is ten per cent lower than it was in 2012, while German is at an all-time low.

The UK government is now putting an emphasis on language learning from a young age, with plans unveiled to make learning a language compulsorily from the age of seven. Perhaps it is time for Ireland to follow suit? Mr Lenglet tells the Irish Times: “How can Irish people meet the expectations abroad, or in the Irish market, if their knowledge of foreign languages is behind the rest of Europe?”