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Which language is best for Irish kids to learn?

01 February 2015

Which language is best for Irish kids to learn?
Is it too early for my 9-year-old to start learning a foreign language?
No, the sooner the better. Why? For starters 60% of adults in Ireland say they can’t have a conversation in any other language apart from their mother tongue. Up to 70% of those on the payroll of foreign-owned companies in Ireland like Google and Apple are foreign hires because Irish people lack the necessary language skills. Yet even today only 1 in 28 children at primary school in Ireland learns a foreign language compared to 1 in 2 in Europe. By the time my 7-year-old daughter (pictured) is leaving school, the majority of her European peers will be able to speak English as well as she can – in addition to their mother tongue and probably another language to boot. In an increasingly borderless Europe, bilingual and trilingual Hans (Irina/Nicoletta/Henri/Sven/Piotr/insert name) will have their pick of third-level courses and later, jobs. And I’m not talking call-centre or customer support jobs. We’ll see increasing numbers of foreign-born, highly-educated, über-mobile and multi-lingual young people making their careers wherever they like. It’s high time we Irish caught on – and caught up.
Ok, so which language is best for an Irish child to take up?
Young children can easily mimic most sounds they hear. They absorb and reproduce new words much more easily than adults, they don’t get bogged down in grammar rules and they are not super-self-conscious about their pronunciation. Why foreign languages aren’t yet part of Irish primary school curriculums is another day’s debate but if you want to get your child started early, here are a few pointers:
Vive le français!
Pros
  • French is the most popular language in secondary schools in Ireland.
  • French is spoken in nearly 40 countries including France, Canada, many African countries and in the Caribbean.
  • Many Irish parents did some French at school and so can help their child get into it.
  • 40% of English words derive from French so it has been oft seen as an ‘easier’ language for English speakers to learn.
  • France is a really great place to holiday…
Cons
  • French words contain lots of letters you don’t pronounce so this makes it trickier for kids than more phonetic languages like Spanish.
  • The list of grammar exceptions is always longer than the rule.
  • Easier to learn than Chinese or Arabic? Perhaps. Easier than German or Spanish – probably not.
Wir lieben Deutsch
We loved it a bit more 20 years ago when Germany was the place to go to get a few extra DM for student living (if you couldn’t get a J1 visa, that was). Reunification and increasing migration from the east put an end to those summer jobs but German is still a good choice for our kids.
Pros
  • A good sensible work option – particularly suited to ambitious, sausage-loving types whose favourite toys are cars and constructing stuff out of lego.
  • Multinationals in Ireland struggle to fill German-speaking posts.
  • There will always be opportunities for skilled graduates in the most highly-productive country in Europe. And not just in Deutschland – Austria and Switzerland are also German-speaking.
Cons
  • German is generally not widely-spoken outside of Europe.
  • The level of English in Germany is very high – children now start learning English in Kindergarten – so there is less need to speak German with the Germans.
  • Not the sweetest sounding of all languages, some words can be very long and you need patience to wait for the main verb at the end of many sentences…
Español – olé!
It’s been a rough few years for Spain – in recession, in debt and in the doldrums generally – but things should be well on the up by 2025! In the meantime, Mexico, Columbia and Argentina are booming.
Pros
  • It’s a good choice if Mia and Jack already love watching Dora and Diego…
  • It’s simple to pick up the basics, even for mammies and daddies if they want to help.
  • Spanish is written phonetically so it’s easy for kids to learn to pronounce it and later to read it.
  • Learning Spanish can make it easier to pick up other romance languages like Italian or Portuguese.
  • Spain is another great place for family holidays – lovely culture, food and people – and great value to be had a bit further away from the tourist hotspots.
  • Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world, with 550 million speakers.
  • Spanish is the second language of the US with 37 million speakers and counting… (1 million more than the 36 million who claimed Irish ancestry in the 2013 census!)
  • The majority of people in the Hispanic world have low levels of English – easier to travel or do business if you speak their language.
Cons
  • It’s a pity but not all secondary schools in Ireland offer Spanish yet.
  • Spanish speakers are among the fastest in the world – it can be hard to keep up with them!
  • Your earning power with Spanish as a second language is still lower than it is with German or French.
French, German and Spanish are the top three because these are taught in Irish secondary schools but there are more options. Just bear in mind that you may have to find other ways for your kids to practise less mainstream languages.
Mama mia – mi piace italiano
Pros
  • Easy to learn and perfectly acceptable to wave and gesticulate a lot to get your meaning across anyway.
  • Lovely language, lovely country, lovely culture, lovely people, lovely food…
Cons
  • …..lovely to listen to, lovely to learn but despite its general loveliness, not the most useful for work.
  • Useful for trips to Italy as Italians not that great at English but not really useful anywhere else except in Switzerland and in other Italian-speaking communities your child might want to infiltrate someday!
Portuguese
Pros
  • Great choice if you have ties with Brazil…
  • …and Portugal is near enough to take the kids over to practise regularly.
  • It is spoken by over 250 million people in Brazil, Portugal, as well as African countries including Mozambique and Angola. Not forgetting East Timor…
  • The level of English in all Portuguese-speaking countries is still very low.
Cons
  • Portuguese pronunciation is not easy.
  • It is not as useful for travel or business in South America as Spanish.
Chinese
Pros
  • The earlier you start, the greater your chances of mastery.
  • 1 in 6 people in the world speaks Chinese – so in the absence of cheap Ryanair flights to China your child is bound to find Chinese children in Ireland to practise with.
  • Chinese people respect and appreciate efforts to speak Chinese so good for future business dealings.
Cons
  • There are lots of regional dialects so people from one part do not necessarily understand people from another part…
  • Although Chinese characters don’t vary from one place to another, it takes a long time to learn to read and write the 4,000+ characters needed for good reading and writing skills.
  • Kids generally need some immersion to keep it up long-term – better start saving for the flights now…
Arabic
Pros
  • It’s spoken by about 420 million people in 27 fascinating countries – lots of holiday choices (though Irish mammies and daddies will have to be on their very best behaviour in some of the stricter ones).
  • The level of English in most Arabic-speaking countries is low and efforts to speak Arabic are appreciated.
  • Arabic is a good choice for future would-be diplomats.
Cons
  • Again, there are a lot of language variations between countries so again not all Arabic speakers understand each other.
  • Not so many opportunities for kids to practise Arabic with native speakers in Ireland yet.
  • It is written right to left….i.e .left to right written is It
Russian
Pros
  • Russian is not particularly difficult to learn once you master the alphabet.
  • Many Eastern Europeans had to learn it at school and still use it as a lingua franca.
  • Again, if diplomacy is your child’s forte, it’s worth thinking about Russian career-wise…
Cons
  • It is no longer obligatory in the former Soviet countries so the number of kids learning it has plummeted.
  • While there is no doubt it would be useful for business with Russia, the thought of Mia and Jack relocating to Moscow might be a bit scary for some Irish mammies and daddies…
Use it or lose it
Long-term career prospects are great to have but before signing them up for a course, you do need to think about how, when and where your kids are going to practise their Spanish/French/German/Italian/Portuguese/Chinese/Arabic/etc. between now and graduating! Learning a language is a bit like learning a musical instrument or learning to dance. Some kids will pick it up very easily and show extraordinary talent early on, others will need to practise more often. But just like the budding guitarist or pirouetting ballerina, the little linguist will eventually need to show off their language skills to their mammies, daddies, grannies and assorted family and friends if they are going to stick at it long enough to become fluent. So you’ll need to give them as many opportunities to do this as you can.
So which language(s) did I choose for my kids?
My young linguists of 9 and 7 have been learning Spanish for two years and French for almost a year. The sausage and lego-loving one has just started German as well and the family diplomat is going to start Arabic in September. Think we’ve got most bases covered for now. Do let us know what yours opt for in the end!

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