BBC Northern Ireland has picked up on a report http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20512036 once again demonstrating Northern Ireland’s linguistic deficiencies.
For all the understandable buzz about STEM subjects, we are becoming too inclined to forget about our crisis in language learning. The issue is that we qualify too many lawyers, teachers and bureaucrats – but we qualify too few linguists just as we qualify too few scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.
One of the reasons, of course, is our obsession with silos. There is still the 20th century notion that we should be qualified as one particular thing. Who on earth wants to be a linguist, whatever that is?!
But the 21st century is the century of the multi-skilled. It is not enough merely to be an accountant, or even an engineer. We need accountants with management skills, engineers with entrepreneurial mindsets, people in general able to cover numerous areas. And, if we are to export and create wealth, we need them all to be linguists!
Let us re-emphasise this: the majority of the world’s population is at least bilingual. Almost two-thirds of the European Union’s population is conversationally proficient in at least two languages. Most people in several different EU countries (notably Scandinavia and Benelux) speak three languages or more. You will have to excuse me, but the last time I visited the Netherlands or Sweden, I didn’t notice that this time taken up learning foreign languages had exactly restricted local engineering skills, scientific knowledge or innovation levels!
There isn’t a lot of point in creating all the most wonderful services and products in the world if we can’t sell them to the countries on our doorstep (the EU) or the rising economies (China, India, Brazil). They all speak English – but only when they’re selling to us! If we want to sell to them…
So no, we don’t need career linguists. We need a population of linguists – just like Scandinavia and Benelux. Learning languages should be fundamental to the education right from the start; they should be taught in a way which enables maximum flexibility to learn new ones; and they should also be managed so as to enhance our skills in our own language (something which, in itself, certainly would not restrict innovation or creativity). And we must forget about the tired old learning techniques involving separating languages unnaturally and then teaching people to memorise bits of a language rather than gain an intuitive feel for all of it.
Forget about an Irish Language Act. We need a Comprehensive Languages [plural] Act, which fundamentally changes our attitude to languages and our modes of teaching and learning them.