Northern Ireland risks being left behind because children are not required to learn a second language in primary school

Ian Collen, Lecturer in Modern Languages Education, Queen’s University Belfast

The Conversation21 June 2019

The European Union recommends for every citizen to be able to communicate in two languages in addition to their mother tongue – and makes language learning for primary school children a priority. Children in England Scotland and Wales learn a foreign or indigenous language as part of the curriculum. But Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where primary school pupils do not have to learn another language.

In Northern Ireland, pupils must only learn a language between the ages of 11 and 14 – which is the shortest compulsory phase of language learning in Europe. Even within this age range, the Northern Ireland government does not recommend time for language learning and there is considerable difference from school to school.

Grammar schools for example are more likely to dedicate a longer amount of time to language learning, while non-selective schools tend to set aside less than two hours per week. If primary schools do offer languages, they do so voluntarily and often not as part of class time.

But my research shows that many children in Northern Ireland would like to have the opportunity to learn another language from a young age. I asked 2,698 ten and 11 year-old pupils in their final year of primary education about language learning and 62% of pupils questioned said they thought children should have to learn another language in primary school. Of the 1,671 children in the study who thought languages should be compulsory, almost 60% felt that language learning should start at the age of eight or nine.

The study also showed that motivation for language learning is high among pupils – with 83% of respondents looking forward to starting to learn, or continuing to learn, a language after primary school. This echoes previous research into primary languages, that shows the majority of pupils are positive about learning languages.

Starting young

Just under half of the children surveyed said they currently learn a language in primary school – with Spanish and Irish being the most popular.

This may be the legacy of the optional Early Years Primary Modern Languages Programme. This project was discontinued by Northern Ireland’s Department of Education in 2015. One of the weaknesses of the programme was that languages offered were restricted to Spanish, Irish and, for a time, Polish – so only offered a limited number of languages to pupils.

The survey also showed that French and German are offered by relatively few primary schools in Northern Ireland – 360 pupils learn French and just 37 children learn German. This is alarming, especially given that these languages are declining sharply at GCSE and A-level and have been identified by the British Council as being in the top five languages required by the UK to remain competitive.

Inconsistent experiences

For those children in Northern Ireland who do learn a language in primary school, there is great variety in who teaches them. Building on previous research into teachers of languages at primary schools, more than half of pupils in the survey reported being taught a language by an “outsider”. This could be an external company, a teacher from a secondary school, a sixth-form pupil, a teacher from a cultural institute or a native speaker.

Some pupils only learn languages as an extracurricular activity and with no agreed programme of study, those children who do learn a language have a varied and inconsistent experience.