Northern Ireland

NI 'ill prepared' for business future, says language report

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Image caption The report examined how other European countries approached the teaching of languages

Northern Ireland has a weak profile when it comes to learning foreign languages and needs to give this a much higher priority, a report suggests.

A British Council study warns NI is "a long way from being self-sufficient in producing linguists in languages likely to be needed" by its businesses.

The report pointed to the lack of linguists in Asian languages and a wider range of European languages.

It said there was little language provision on vocational courses.

This is in common with the rest of the United Kingdom.

It said that both Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster offer languages in combination with other specialisms, as well as degree courses in the foreign languages taught in schools.

"However, Queen's University Belfast closed its German department in 2009, reflecting the squeeze on languages in higher education which is being felt across the UK," the report points out.

The British Council's Language Rich Europe report examined how different European countries approached the teaching and use of regional, minority and foreign languages.

In Northern Ireland, researchers found that the situation as regards modern foreign languages in secondary schools in Northern Ireland has deteriorated rapidly since languages were made optional after the first three years of secondary education as part of the 2007 curriculum reform.

This resulted in a 19% drop in numbers sitting GCSE examinations over three years with French, as the first foreign language taught, being the worst hit.

Spanish is now the second most widely taught modern language and is managing to maintain numbers. However, German also suffered declines. At lower secondary level, however, many schools require pupils to study two languages.

At ages 16-18, the numbers studying languages have remained steadier but have declined as a proportion of the cohort. The pattern is that French is declining significantly; German, from a smaller base, less so; Spanish is still gaining numbers; and Irish is maintaining equilibrium.

Jonathan Stewart, deputy director of the British Council in Northern Ireland , said the report's findings suggest that language skills would support the Northern Irish economy in facing challenges ranging from increasing exports to promoting tourism and inward investment.

"The findings complement the recent ICM Research (2011) undertaken on behalf of Think Global and the British Council with UK employers," he said.

"The study was commissioned to gauge the extent to which business leaders see global thinking as an important skill amongst employees and potential recruits to their companies.

"This study found that three-quarters of businesses think we are in danger of being left behind by emerging countries unless young people learn to think more globally, and are worried that many young people's horizons are not broad enough to operate in a globalised and multicultural economy."

The Confederation of British Industry has said that recent studies have shown that nearly three quarters of businesses say they value foreign langue skills among staff while one in five is concerned that weakness if foreign language proficiency is losing them business.

Kirsty McManus, the Assistant Regional Director of CBI Northern Ireland believes the survey gives an accurate assessment of the situation in Northern Ireland.

"CBI believes that strong export performance will be crucial in driving economic recovery and companies will need many more people with strong language skills to help them enter new markets in the future," she said.

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