Junior Cert Languages in Ireland

For pretty much most of my adult life I have been regretting the fact that we do not teach languages effectively in Ireland. One of my key concerns is that as a country, Ireland does not value those skills.

During the week, Richard Bruton, Minister for Education, announced that in the future, all students for the Junior Certificate (this is the exam taken at around age 15 or 16 in Ireland) would study a foreign language. He is quoted as saying a couple of things which interested me:

“We are going to have to, post-Brexit, realise that one of the common weaknesses of English speaking countries – that we disregard foreign languages – has to be addressed in Ireland.

He is also targeting a 10% increase in the number of students taking languages at Leaving Certificate level. There is also a desire to expand the range of languages taught in Irish schools. All of this is laudable.

“We need now to trade in the growth areas – and many of those speak Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin. Those are the languages that we need to learn to continue to trade successfully.”

One of the key issues which we need to address, however, is the lack of teachers in these areas. And we need to take a long hard look at how successful we have been with the more common languages like French. It is one thing to say we will teach more languages. It is an entirely different kettle of fish when it comes to acknowledging we have made a hamfisted mess of it so far. We teach people Irish from the age of 5 and have not yet got that right for example.

There are other issues. If you take a look at the availability of languages at third level, you’ll find Spanish has reasonable coverage. The others do not. It might be possible to take Portuguese in UCC under their world languages program but most common across the university system in Ireland are French, German and Spanish with possibly Japanese as the outlier.

Against that, in absolute terms, more students study foreign languages in Ireland (even if we don’t count Irish as a second language) than do in England and Wales.

On the plus side, I’m really happy to see that there is a will to fix the gaps in foreign language acquisition in the Irish school system. But I think there is a lot to do outside simply putting a curriculum together and getting kids to study it at school. What does not support language acquisition in Ireland is the chronic lack of credible media in foreign languages. If you listen to radio in most European countries, they are playing a wider range of pop music in a bunch of different languages. Our media is incredibly anglo centric. When I was at school in the 1980s there were two French pop songs in the charts, one called Voyage Voyage and one called Joe Le Taxi (it catapulted Vanessa Paradis into the big time). Foreign language television tends to be relegated to the smaller stations, in Ireland TG 4 and in the UK, BBC 4. The rep for TV5 has his heart broken on twitter trying to make it clear that TV5Europe is available on most sat systems available in Ireland.

I learned an awful lot of my French by watching of all things Beverly Hills 90210 dubbed into French.

If we are going to say “We, in Ireland, recognise that we need to learn foreign languages”, we also need to say “And we will try and get the media to get their asses in gear to support this”.

In a way, this is recognised by his counterpart in opposition, Thomas Byrne.

Any modern language strategy must be across all Government departments as well. It can’t just be about the education system – it has to be how we live our lives, how we interact with the wider world.

I’d also add that in one respect, I think that Richard Bruton maybe should reconsider this:

At the moment if you look at Leaving Cert and Junior Cert, French dominates. French is a lovely language, but we need to recognise that we need to diversify into other languages

In the grand scheme of things, he is probably aware that a stated element of Irish foreign policy at the moment is to encourage and support as many people as the country can into the European institutions. One of the key issues we have in this respect is that not enough people come out of school with fluent French or German. We may need to diversity into other languages but I think we need to ensure that in the future, we are not looking at one foreign language, but two and that Irish people have a command of two of the working languages of the institutions of the European Union.

I’m very glad that education policy is being looked at in this context. It would be interesting to see more concrete plans and a timeframe for making this reality.

The report on the matter is here on the Newstalk site.

Undergraduate languages in the United Kingdom

I write, from time to time, on language related matters and one of the items on my list of backburner projects was to have a look at undergraduate language options in the United Kingdom. I had a look at Ireland as well but since we have 7 universities, there isn’t very much of interest to consider when it comes to language provision in Ireland. UCC is about your best option there. I’ll post the graph of that later.

The United Kingdom is interesting for a couple of reasons: firstly, tuition provision in languages has been falling off a cliff there and language departments have been closing near hand over fist. One of my recollections relating to language tuition provision in the university sector was that there was a great breadth of provision in terms of languages offered when I was looking for somewhere to study back in 1990, and given changes to language related matters in the UK in the interim, I was interested to see how things looked. Data, however, is not that easily come by and in the end I would up collecting it manually.

One of the things I wanted to do was see what the obvious clusters were and it occurred to me that using languages and higher education organisations as nodes might allow a network chart to be built. I actually did a proof of concept of that with the Irish provisions purely because there were neither too many languages nor too many universities (seven of the latter and not far off seven for the former). The network depicting software which I used was Gephi.

According to the basic research which I did, 78 higher education organisations are offering primary degrees of which a language is a major component. I suspect, if I were to look more closely and root out things like “International Business With A Language” type degrees, the number of pure language related courses would be significantly lower. I have not decided how best to sort out data to get that information and I may not do it just yet.

Eventually, when I plotted things, there was an interesting imbalance on the graph. I noted this on the graph itself for which you can find here, but it is obvious enough below too.

UnitedKingdomWhat this tells you is that if you want to learn anything other than, effectively, French, Spanish, English, Italian, German, Russian or Chinese, most of your options are limited to two universities in London or one in Edinburgh. The overwhelming number of universities which offer any language study at all draw primarily from the seven listed above. There are a few stragglers around but that’s more or less the way things are.

One of the things I would consider doing with this data at some stage is comparing language provision in the United Kingdom with language provision in the university sector in a bunch of other European countries, and also, looking at comparing provision of official European languages within the university sector across Europe. I really have no idea how I could quickly get this data together – I do not know if it’s even available anywhere. But it would be interesting to see where the holes exist in terms of provision of tuition at university level of official European languages.

David McWilliams and teachers

David McWilliams has a piece in today’s Irish Independent which basically suggests the problem with teachers is with teachers themselves, mainly, they are too stuck in the mud.

Debate on education in Ireland  is rarely if ever balanced and the current hassle causing discussion is linked to changes to the Junior cycle assessment. However, when you see people contributing to debate in a manner that includes “why don’t you leave it, oh yeah, you’d lose your three months’ holidays”, and “Overpaid, jobs for life”, my soul fades away a little people. Arguments of this nature are ignorant. In Ireland, probably led on by the UK, we don’t trust teachers.

We don’t trust teachers.

We devalue their work, reject their contributions to debate on their industry and suggest their sole motivation is for the easy life of three years holidays.

And then we throw Finland at them.

In not one column discussion changes locally and citing Finland as an example, do we highlight core features of the Finnish system that made it special. It is a highly equal system and its core objective was social equality. Becoming best in literacy and numeracy was a fringe benefit.

So here are some features of the Finnish system which perhaps Irish people should want to take on board.

There are practically no private schools. 

All those rugby playing schools who populate the elite in Ireland? Gone. Nothing. I personally have no objection to this  – I think it’s a good idea. What private schools exist in Finland are subject to a few rules which I don’t think would go down well here:

However, even in private schools, the use of tuition fees is strictly prohibited, and selective admission is prohibited, as well: private schools must admit all its pupils on the same basis as the corresponding municipal school.


Teachers have a great deal of autonomy.

Teachers are highly valued members of society and their contribution is recognised as valued. Certainly the Finns pay their teaching staff less than we do, but only ignorant people would fail to see that this is part of a whole. Living conditions in Finland tend to be better across the board and the last time I was there, it was also a noticeably less expensive place to live in. Comparing purely in monetary terms is something we really should learn not to do. However, one of the key things which they do not do in Finland is treat their teachers as leeches on the system. We could learn a lot from how the Finns in general treat their teachers. We are not anywhere close.

University education is free

If you are arguing that we should follow the Finnish method, then you can’t do it on a pick and mix basis. Our universities want to charge fees.

When David McWilliams suggests that teachers should be open to change, he is missing the point. They are interested in change. They are interested in change which they can effectively implement, which gives them autonomy. We don’t respect teachers in this country and we certainly don’t listen to them.

If I wanted to give an example, it’s worth looking at the respect rugby referees get from their players versus the respect, or lack of it, football referees get from their players. We, in Ireland, play football with our teachers, and not rugby.

Most of the debates on education in Ireland do not focus on the core objective of education. Nowhere, in any of the pieces I have read recently, does anyone advocating Finland, highlight the core objective of the Finnish system was to reduce social inequality. We want to emulate their numeracy and literacy and be the same as them without taking the hard decisions that they did. You could argue that yes, the Junior Certificate could be marked locally by teachers. But that doesn’t magically make us perform like Finland. It’s a cargo cult approach to education.

In the same respect, you cannot honestly claim to respect teachers if you 1) insist they’re only in it for the holidays 2) suggest they quit if it’s not all that and 3) impose change on them without understanding where their objections are coming from. They deal with the every day price of teaching and the every day challenges of it.

We also need a wider discussion on what we expect from our education system. We have tech companies complaining that our university grads are not skilled enough. We have business people screaming that we don’t have enough language skills while paying absolutely nothing for those skills which are apparently in short supply. We get fashionable demands like “every child must learn to code” and “we should be teaching kids foreign languages from the age of 4”. These are fads.

There are a bunch of core skills on which every other part of learning is built. We need to identify them and focus on them. Reading, writing and basic numeracy are amongst them. Critical thinking is another one which is sadly absent in a lot of discourse on education.

When I look at the education debate in Ireland, it strikes me as poverty stricken.

This article – which may or may not have formed some of McWilliams’ research for the piece linked above is more nuanced.

Even in Finland, the reforms have met objections from teachers and heads – many of whom have spent their lives focusing on a particular subject only to be told to change their approach.

Finnish schools are obliged to introduce a period of “phenomenon-based teaching” at least once a year. These projects can last several weeks. In Helsinki, they are pushing the reforms at a faster pace with schools encouraged to set aside two periods during the year for adopting the new approach.

I honestly believe that we need to re-assess how we consider education. I’m not sure that doing it within the framework of criticising teachers for blocking reform is the most effective way of doing so.

The value of full time education

Brian Mulligan has a piece in today’s Irish Times, or at least, it has appeared online overnight anyway, questioning whether we can afford to send all our young people into full time education. It is worth noting that he is pushing online and distance options as a replacement for same, and that he is a lecturer and program manager in the Centre for Online Learning at the Institute of Technology in Sligo.

I wish to address a number of points he raises, but, in the interests of transparency, I will outline my own experience in this matter before proceeding: 1) I have studied full time in DCU for four years. 2) I have studied full time and worked part time at the University of Westminster for one year; 3) I have studied part time at DCU and worked full time for 2 years 4) I have worked full time and studied via distance learning with the Open University for 2 years and I studied full time at UCD, including 2 modules which were delivered online. I may not be a program manager for an organisation which is selling distance services but I have been a user of education services in most forms at this stage.

There is a trope in existence that when a story regarding some form of science opens with a question, the answer is usually No.

Brian Mulligan opens with a question.

Could it be that sending our children to college is an extravagance?

I think it is fair to say the answer to this question is actually No. No it is not an extravagance. In fact, if I had to say anything, the ongoing debate about the cost of education and what it brings is evidence, perhaps of knowing the price of things but not the value. Sending people to college is only an extravagance if you have an extremely narrow view of what education should be about.

The vision which Brian Mulligan sets out of young people going into menial jobs – as he calls them – and obtaining an education via some distance form enabling them to stay at home – is evidence of someone focusing on price rather than value.

As learners are mostly working and do not need to live away from home, they can more easily afford the fees, often with assistance from employers and with less subsidy from the State.


There is no doubt that changes in technology may bring about changes in how education can be delivered, but this is no argument in favour of making full time education the privilege of the wealthy only, not if you want a healthy and reasonably equal society. One of the core values in enabling youngsters to leave home and go to college is that they learn to stand on their own two feet more quickly, and they meet a greater social mix; something which is a good thing, and highly important for an integrated society. It is no harm that people get to mix outside their own social circle; for society as a whole it is massively important. This is not a method of qualifying people as socially confident or not; what matters is ensuring that people are not constantly reinforced in narrow views in a homogenous conversation.

Should individuals and the State be spending or borrowing so much for what now could be seen as a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people? An extravagance?

Brian Mulligan is at liberty to consider his own education a pleasant rite of passage. He would make it a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people purely by removing from unprivileged people the right to and support for time to dedicate themselves to education. He wants to use modern technology to set society and education back 50-60 years again purely by allowing privilege to define your right to study full time. And he does this to support his organisation’s business case.

The trouble for me is this: I do think that it is not a rite of passage to go through some specialised education. I think it is highly suitable for some people, and less suitable for others. I honestly believe that we should have a decent and recognisably standardised apprentice system. I also believe that for young people who choose not to travel the academic route, we should have methods of enabling them to access what training they require. But I do also believe that money should not be the defining method by which we choose who gets a full time education in UCD and who does not. In a decent society, the marker should be ability and will.

That being said, I honestly believe that distance and on-demand education is something which is poorly provided and basically lopsided in this country. I mentioned above that I had done distance education via the Open University. I did this because at the time, there was no obvious way of studying for a mathematics degree part time from any university in this country. If you are looking for arts based degrees part time via distance, the provision is very poor. Most of what Brian Mulligan’s organisation offers is skills specific based rather falling under the broader term of education. Training rather than learning, if you like

I am not in favour of seeing distance and online education being sold as a replacement for letting our young people go to college. However, that is not to argue against it having a value for enabling all of society to have a continued access to education for the sake of education

Ireland has a serious need for a wider debate on education and training and the value we attribute to both. I have seen the opportunity cost to the country of economics dictating who gets to college and who does not. We also need to understand that sometimes, there is an argument in favour of education for education’s sake; for enabling people to access knowledge on an ongoing basis. Education does not end at the age of 21, 23 or 25 depending on how far you get through third levels into academia. Its value is not solely linked to your salary out of university because it also has a monumental impact on how you look at the world.

Everyone should learn to code

This, from the Wall Street Journal.

It annoyed me, not because I disagree with the idea of people learning to code – I don’t – but because as a piece supporting the idea that people should learn to code, it has some glaring errors in it and doesn’t really support the idea that people should learn to code. Personally I think a lot of tech people should learn to communicate more effectively but a lot of them appear to think they don’t have to so let’s just explain why this piece is a problem.

The most important technological skill for all employees is being able to code. If, as Marc Andreessen once noted, “Software is eating the world,” knowing how to code will help you eat rather than be eaten. Understanding how to design, write and maintain a computer program is important even if you never plan to write one in business. If you don’t know anything about coding, you won’t be able to function effectively in the world today.

So, two major assertions here: the most important technological skill for all employees is being able to code and “if you don’t know anything about coding, you won’t be able to function effectively in the world today”.

These assertions are patently not true. To be frank, the most important technological skill for an employee, in my opinion, is the ability to describe what’s gone wrong on the screen in front of them. That’s also a communications issue but it does enable technology experts to help them. As for “if you don’t know anything about coding, you won’t be able to function effectively”, I strongly disagree with that and would suggest that ultimately, the problems lie with interface design which employees are not actually responsible for the most part.

You will inevitably work with people who program for a living, and you need to be able to communicate effectively with them. You will work with computers as a part of your job, and you need to understand how they think and operate. You will buy software at home and work, and you need to know why it works well or doesn’t. You will procure much of your information from the Internet, and you need to know what went wrong when you get “404 not found” or a “500 internal server error” messages.

Not one thing in this paragraph requires coding skills. It requires programmers to learn to communicate effectively and given a lot of them have trouble with the basic need to document what they are doing already, it’s a steep learning curve. With respect to software, again, how well it works depends on how well it is documented and designed. You do not need to be able to program to understand a 404 not found or a 500 internal server error.

Of course, being able to code is also extremely helpful in getting and keeping a job. “Software developers” is one of the job categories expected to grow the most over the next decade.

But not every employee is a software developer and nor should they be.

But in addition to many thousands of software professionals, we need far more software amateurs. McKinsey & Co. argued a few years ago that we need more than 1.5 million “data-savvy managers” in the U.S. alone if we’re going to succeed with big data, and it’s hard to be data-savvy without understanding how software works.

Data and programming are not the same things. Where data is concerned we frantically need people who get statistics, not just programming. IME, most programmers don’t get statistics at all. Teaching people to code will not fix this; it’s a tool to support another knowledge base.

Even if you’ve left school, it’s not too late. There are many resources available to help you learn how to code at a basic level. The language doesn’t matter.

Learn to code, and learn to live in the 21st century.

I’m absolutely in favour of people learning to think programmatically, and logically. But I don’t think it’s a requirement for learning to live in the 21st century. The world would be better served if we put more effort into learning to cook for ourselves.

I hate puff pieces like this. Ultimately, I mistrust pieces that suggest everyone should be able to code particularly at a time when coding salaries are low at the time we are being told there’s a frantic shortage. I’ve seen the same happen with linguistic skills. There are a lot of good reasons to learn to code – but like a lot of things, people need to set priorities in what they want to do, what they want to learn on. Learning to write computer code is not especially different; learning to apply it to solving problems on the other hand takes a way of looking at the world.

I’d prefer it if we looked at teaching people problem solving skills. These are not machine dependent and they are sadly lacking. In the meantime, people who have never opened a text editor understand that 404 Not found does not mean they could fix their problems by writing a program.


Learning programming before going to university

Ryan Walmsley has a piece suggesting you shouldn’t learn programming before going to university. It’s worth a read.

Personally, I am not against people learning to code before they get to university. I am, however, not in favour of people who have no coding skills arriving at university and starting with Scratch. Scratch is a superb tool for teaching kids how to program, and a bit about how computers work. It is not a suitable tool for adults on a coding specialist code in my view. While I am not the biggest fan of Java (disclaimer: have yet to review Lambdas in Java 8 and this may make some of my frustration go away), and I recognise that some people have issues with the lack of strong typing in Python, ultimately, once you get as far as university, you should at least start with tools you have a fighting chance of using in the income earning world. And there are a lot of them. Not in the top ten is Scratch.

Like  a lot of things, tools need to be used appropriately and Scratch is an absolute winner in the sector it was designed for. But I have a book on my desk here that teaches kids how to program in Python and if kids can do that, I see no reason why we need kids level languages like Scratch at university level.


I really have a lot of things to catch up on but a couple of weeks ago, a piece on the Business Insider site caught my eyes. In it, it suggested that if you wanted to work for Google, you needed to know Matlab. They attributed the comment to a guy called Jonathon Rosenberg.

This caused some discussion on twitter in the days afterwards. Mostly, people found it difficult to believe, particularly when Google uses a bunch of other tools, including my personal choice for a lot of data analysis, R.

I am not sure that Matlab is a mandatory requirement to work in Google; it doesn’t necessarily turn up on any of their job ads that I might be interesting, but in some respects, I can understand why A N Company might do something like this. It’s a little sorting mechanism. The point which I found most interesting about the piece above was less that Google were looking for Matlab, but that the writers of the piece had never heard of Matlab.

I was once interviewed about modern web technology and how it might benefit the company concerned way back in the early days of the web becoming a consumer sales channel. My view of the discussion ultimately wasn’t that they wanted me to work on their web interfaces (not at that stage anyway), but they wanted to see what my ability to learn about new stuff was. It may well be that if you go to work for Google in some sort of research job, you’ll use Matlab. Or, more probably, you’ll learn a bunch of other things in the area that you are working.

Either way, comments like Rosenberg’s may, or may not be official hiring policy but it’s often worth considering that they are asking a broader question rather than “Can you use Matlab” and more “Can you prove to use that you can develop in whatever direction we throw you”.

And if you haven’t heard of Matlab, the chances are, you may not.

Languages from a young age

I’m not entirely sure who dropped this in my twitter feed this morning but it caught my attention because it relates to teaching children foreign languages from the age of 3.

I am in favour of children learning languages from a young age and I am starting to do some research into how children acquire language for a separate reason anyway, but this concerned me:

When children join the preschool class of Moreton First at three years of age, they are exposed to four languages.

The four languages are English, French, Spanish and Chinese.

Catherine More, the head of the Moreton First School mentions explicitly research discussing the benefits of bilingualism and I fully favour that. However, bilingualism only works if it’s done properly. Quadrilingualism is not doing bilingualism properly.

Having spoken to parents in bilingual households, full fluency in two languages is hard work and that is with the benefit of home contact. If I were looking to school a child in an atmosphere where they were to be getting linguistic advantage, I’d prefer it to be just one foreign language, but taught in a more indepth manner.

Moreton First is a feeder school for Moreton Senior School. It would be interesting to test the fluency of children in the four languages as they progress through school.


Via twitter, I was pointed to this report on the RTE website this morning.

The takeaway message is:

A new survey has found a third of parents think computer coding is a more important skill to learn than Irish.

I’m getting wary of seeing pieces talking about computer coding rather than computer programming. Ultimately, there is a lot more to writing computer code than just knowing the syntax and I tend to consider coding to be the syntax part of things, and programming to be the wider scale of things.

But even if we leave that little quibble aside, I have problems with the whole idea of either/or when it comes to asking people what should be taught in school. I’m fully in favour of teaching children to program. There are a lot of tools to do this: MIT Scratch is one of the highest profile ones but depending on what age children you are talking about, Python and Java are also options, particularly the former in the context of Raspberry Pis.

Realistically, we need to step back and look at core skills. When you are talking about primary school level, which we are here:

The findings are likely to bolster the arguments of those who say coding should be offered as part of the primary school curriculum, as it has been in Britain since the start of this school year.

the point remains that we are also dealing with literacy and numeracy issues at this stage too.  I have written before on the UK’s policy – and I’d also add that while the authorities there made a lot of noise about this curriculum policy, they did not follow it up with so much support for continuing professional development for teachers who were expected to go from teaching computer use to computer programming in a school year. Ultimately, when you start thinking about getting children to write computer programs, you need to also start thinking about the tools they will have available and what you expect them to achieve.

I am willing to bet that this survey did not actually talk about what the parents in question expected children to be able to do writing computer code at the age of 8 or 10.

One of the items which RTE reported on was this:

Of the 1,000 adults questioned, two-thirds said learning coding is equally important as maths, science and languages.

Leaving aside the fact that whoever wrote this needs to re-read things occasionally, the point is, writing computer programs depends on abilities in maths, science and language. In short, you cannot learn to write computer code without already having core skills in mathematics and communication. Logically, when it is dependent on a skill set, it cannot be as important as that skill set itself.

This is why this part makes me incandescent with rage:

One-third even think it’s more valuable than Irish, with one-fifth believing it is a more important skill than maths.

Every single computer science undergraduate course in the country will have a mathematics component. If you want them to get any value out of the growing sector, which is data analytics, mathematics is absolutely MANDATORY. There is no point in assuming that you know what you’re talking about in terms of education policy if you can agree with the statement “writing computer code is more important than mathematics” given that actually, it’s the other way around.

Put in that context, the one third who think computer coding is more important than Irish did not give the most annoying response to this survey.

In any case, there is also this:

And three quarters of people said they would avail of such classes if they were available in their area.

The thing is, they pretty much are. There are over 100 Coderdojo groups spread out across the island of Ireland, near to 150 actually. They are not all in Dublin.

So the question is, are they availing of the Coder Dojo groups – I hesitate to call them classes as that sort of takes the fun out of things – or is this a throwaway “yeah, they don’t teach it in the school but at least if there were a Coder Dojo around, we’d probably do this…” I would have driven 30km to one when I was a child.

I have asked UPC via their PR and general twitter lines whether I can get a copy of the questions on this survey. I really would like to know what they looked like. Also a copy of the report would be useful.