The major benefits of foreign language learning: is Ireland lagging behind?

By Rachel McLoughlin / January 7, 2021
foreign language learning

The benefits of multilingualism have long been established within the world of linguistics and beyond; however, in Ireland we fall behind on foreign language learning significantly compared to other European countries. At present, Ireland is the only European country wherein studying at least one foreign language at primary school level is not compulsory and generally there is a lack of emphasis placed on the importance of language learning in schools in Ireland at both primary and secondary school level. 

An analysis by Ireland’s largest business representatives group, IBEC, concluded that this lack of emphasis will have ‘grave economic, social and cultural consequences … for employability, for trade and the economy and for our cultural life’. An argument often made against the need for foreign language learning in predominantly English-speaking countries is the dominance of English in the business world, with the belief that ‘English is enough’.

So, why is English not enough, and why is foreign language learning so important?

For starters, the importance of learning new languages has become unparalleled in the business world, despite the fact that English is viewed by many as the global language of business. A study conducted by language software company Rosetta Stone found that 70% of employees who underwent language training said it made them more confident when working with teams, partners and vendors, with 71% claiming their language training helped them perform better in their job. With the breakdown of cultural barriers comes a more straightforward experience for employees and clients across the board, creating a mutual understanding rather than getting lost in translation.

In terms of employment opportunities, it’s no secret that multilinguals have a huge competitive advantage when applying for jobs, as well as being paid more. AOL Finance found that people with a second language earn between 5 and 20% more per hour than the position’s base rate. Proficiency in a language other than one’s native tongue showcases important skills to employers such as adaptability and a capability to multitask well, as well as the fact that countless new career paths are now available with these skills, such as translating or interpreting.

Furthermore, language learning and cultural understanding go hand in hand. Language learning helps to foster a greater understanding of the world around us, greatly aiding in what is known as ‘cultural competence’, or the ability to appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from our own. In this sense, language learning also helps to make way for a more tolerant society through breaking down cultural barriers and enforcing a sense of togetherness globally.

The immersive experience of language learning can be felt even more so when travelling to different countries; knowing the languages spoken, even if it’s just a few words, can help put a halt to the assumption that everywhere you travel, everyone will speak English, which will not be the case everywhere you go. Even just knowing a few base words and phrases shows respect for the local people of wherever you are visiting, as well as possibly building a better relationship with locals due to the fact you can communicate in their native tongue. 

foreign language learning

Along with better employment opportunities and a greater depth of cultural knowledge, learning languages helps to boost your brain power and actually helps make your brain healthier. The structures of certain parts of our brain are altered with the continued use of more than one language. Among those altered is grey matter, the part of the brain involved in important daily activities such as learning, memory, cognitive processes like problem-solving, as well as balance and precision. Studies have shown that the brain sees an increase in grey matter volume in bilingual people and polyglots. 

This increase in volume of grey matter can lead to a much healthier brain. In fact, many studies have found that bilingualism (among those who use their second language frequently) appears to significantly delay the early onset of dementia and allows for the brain to maintain its cognitive wellbeing for longer. A study published in the Neurology journal found that from the group of people studied who had been diagnosed with dementia, people who spoke two languages did not develop dementia until 4.5 years later than those who were monolingual.

It’s clear that foreign language learning is beneficial in every sense of the word; boosting employability, improving cognitive skills, cultural enrichment, as well as just being plain fun to do. However, with only 20% of Irish adults knowing one foreign language (compared with the European average of 35%), it’s clear Ireland has a bit of work to do if we want to reap the benefits of foreign language learning. 

In particular, there is work to be done in overhauling the language teaching system at both primary and secondary school level. Specifically, some key issues with foreign language learning at secondary level have arisen in recent years; in 2019 the Irish Times reported on secondary schools being forced to reduce pupils’ access to foreign languages due to ‘difficulties recruiting qualified teachers’. Additionally, evidence of a class gap in the language education system was noted, with students in fee-paying secondary schools much more likely to have a choice of languages to study.

It’s factors like these that may account for the extremely low number – approximately 4% – of students electing to continue with the study of languages in higher education, leading to an overall lack of foreign language capacity in Ireland. Considering the advantages multilingualism brings not only to a nation’s economy but its culture and its people, major improvement is needed, especially in the aftermath of Brexit. With the United Kingdom’s recent exit, Ireland is now the only European Union member state with English as its first language, giving rise even more so to the idea that English is no longer enough.

About the author

Rachel McLoughlin

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