Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Making the Grade

The DUP's Peter Weir has asked an interesting pair of questions on candidates for GCSE and A-level language examinations. Though his exact intentions remain a mystery, it is likely that they were connected with communal politics, as for some reason Irish merited its own AQW.

The overall picture, for someone who feels that the learning of languages is important, is a depressing one. Entries for Irish GCSE fell from 2,482 in 2006-07 to 1,787 in 2010-11, while over the same period those for other languages fell from 15,130 to 11,267. This of course reflects the fact that languages are no longer compulsory at GCSE.

The picture is not as drastic at A level, however, since at that grade studying a language was always elective. Entries for other languages fell only slightly over the same period, from 1,294 to 1,199, while for Irish they actually rose, from 254 to 319. In fact, at A level, only French and Spanish get more entries. Although the statistics do not cover opera-lovers attending night classes, in 2007-08 and 2009-10 no pupils sat an A level in Italian, a major European language with a distinguished literature.

As the 3,000-odd children in Northern Ireland attending Irish-medium education dwarf the figures for A level, it is likely that Irish is the leading non-ethnic language in which fluency is actually achieved — few pupils studying only to GCSE will go on to achieve fluency in a language, while gold fáinní are commonly awarded to pupils at IM primaries.

Any satisfaction brought by that knowledge is of course tempered by the fact that the overall number of fluent linguists in Northern Ireland is so small.

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