It was when I was having dinner with colleagues at a meeting in Verona earlier this month that I was once again reminded about how disadvantaged Irish people are when it comes to foreign languages.
As I arrived at the dinner table, my Belgian, Italian, German, Swiss and French colleagues were speaking in French.
Once I sat down, they resorted to English for my benefit.
There was a Twitter clip doing the rounds recently of a TV reporter filing reports from Kyiv in six different languages.
English is a universal language and one can get by with English pretty smoothly in most parts of the first world
He would be among the elite in linguistics but I have many acquaintances across Europe that has the ability to speak or get by on three or more languages. And that includes Irish friends too.
English is a universal language and one can get by with English pretty smoothly in most parts of the first world. So that makes us lazy from the beginning. And the UK is the country with which we have had the closest relationship in terms of business, jobs and family ties since the foundation of the state. It means we have been able to get by just fine without the need to speak a syllable from any other language.
An EU commission survey showed that the percentage of Irish people working in EU institutions is relatively healthy in proportion to our population, but still along with Denmark, we have the lowest per capita working in EU institutions
And it is also why, according to Eurostat, we continue to be among the laggards of Europe when it comes to being able to speak or understand at least one other foreign language. Last year the Government launched a €4m campaign to encourage Irish people to take up jobs in EU institutions. An EU commission survey showed that the percentage of Irish people working in EU institutions is relatively healthy in proportion to our population, but still along with Denmark, we have the lowest per capita working in EU institutions.
As many Irish NGO representatives and lobbyists will know from their visits over and back to Brussels, there are many big hitters from Ireland occupying key positions in the commission and other EU bodies but the age profile means that many are retiring hence the campaign to get more Irish people to fill the vacancies further downstream.
Our native language is part of our culture and we need to protect it and tread carefully when debating its position within the school curriculum
But the big stumbling block is language. There are few EU jobs advertised that do not stipulate “English” and good working knowledge of at least one other EU recognised language. You could be smart and put down “Irish” legitimately if you have even the primary school basics. Still, it’s not going to be much use on a day to day basis on the continent. Indeed the elephant in the room is the Irish language and the fact that it is mandatory in school yet only 4% are active speakers according to the CSO. Our native language is part of our culture and we need to protect it and tread carefully when debating its position within the school curriculum.
But with growing diversity in Ireland and the fact that like a lighthouse in a bog it is beautiful but useless when it comes to our daily lives, the question remains, what is its place in school?
Thanks to Brexit, we are now the main English-speaking country in the EU and so in big demand within the EU institutions where there are lots of jobs awaiting our graduates. But it is such a pity that the one thing holding us back is the fact that unlike the majority of our fellow EU members, most of us can’t even casually join a conversation in French or Italian or Spanish in the way for example, my journalistic colleagues do whenever we meet up at events. And in 2022 after 50 years in the EU, that is a shame.
Let’s get it right
Call me old fashioned, but there should be a fine for people who call it “Paddy’s Day” and not St Patrick’s Day.