International Child and Youth Care Network
The ‘Fit’ of Foreign Languages
Niall McElwee, PhD. with Imelda Cooke, M.A. DEA & Susan McKenna, B.A.
In my February 2006 monthly column (www.cycnet.org), I suggested that there were several areas that child and youth care/social care education and training courses need to reflect on in terms of the changing population demographics in Ireland. There are now some 450 million Europeans in our new Europe with, as one can imagine, a lot of languages being spoken. And yet, a front-page headline on the Irish Independent newspaper on February 22, 2006 shouts ‘A new report shows we are the worst in Europe for languages!’ The article goes on to state that ‘the detailed comparison across Europe places Ireland in very last place even behind the UK, which is notorious for its poor grasp of languages’. (Irish Independent, 22/02/06). This is embarrassing for us given the fact that we are an island nation if we want to embrace a global worldview.
Foreign language study is not new to Irish third level students. More and more, there is inter-country transfer between European citizens. The Athlone Institute of Technology Programmatic Review (2005) notes that the college has approximately 95 direct partner institute agreements in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Hungary and Switzerland (AIT Programmatic Review, 2005: 35). In my previous column, I raised the fact that the languages offered to our child and youth care students at the Athlone Institute of Technology are currently limited to French, German and Spanish. Yet, we are receiving increasing numbers of Eastern European and African families into the country who do not speak these languages. This raises fundamental questions on child and youth care programs where one can only include six core areas per year and a range of electives as to what exactly one should study. For example, should foreign languages now be mandatory rather than electives? Which languages should we entertain? From where can we gain cultural expertise? What are the implications of the shifting demographics for our students, practitioners, supervisors and managers in the field? How long will it take for some of these new families to Ireland to start to access child and youth care services in much more significant numbers? What sorts of problems might they typically present with?
I trained as a social care practitioner at the Waterford Institute of Technology in the mid 1990’s exiting with a Degree. It seems an appalling remiss now but there was little emphasis on foreign languages when I was a student and very few of my friends studied languages. Indeed, the emphasis was on communications which, of course, was done in English and I had no opportunity to study a foreign language over the life of my College studies. Thus, I undertook three practica rotations with various groups of service users in two different cities and noticed towards the end of my studies that the populations we were typically working with were increasingly international or ‘foreign’. This has certainly become a trend since I graduated. Indeed, in my last employment as a manager there were some 65 children, all with Irish addresses, but with varying ethic and minority backgrounds including Nigerian, Ivory Coast, Romanian, Polish…. which I never would have considered possible as a student in the 1990s. But, Ireland is changing at a terrific pace. If I were an Instructor or Lecturer on a child and youth care college program, what would I like to see introduced knowing what I know now as they say? Well, I would certainly like to see a much broader range of foreign languages on these courses and I would like to see these positively encouraged by faculty. The college could bring in individuals and families from the eastern European and African countries early in the course which would set up a module like Cultural Awareness and Diversity for later on the program. It would have been so much more relational for me to have been able to speak to families and their children in their own language(s) – even if it were very basic at least it would show an effort and interest by the child and youth care community. Now, I know the reader might say, well you could go off and learn a foreign language after your college program but that would be missing the point. It is not up to the student to be aware of what should by on a college curriculum but rather the faculty who assume such developmental roles. I was too busy trying to survive as a student! Incidentally, sign language would be a very welcome addition to one’s portfolio.
I sent an email out to our Language staff in the college informing them that I was writing this paper seeking any views they may hold on this topic. I received three emails back and one of my language lecturer colleagues, Imelda Cooke who lectures French to child and youth care students, agreed to co-author this paper with me. My wife, Susan McKenna who is a child and youth care consultant, also expressed a desire to commit some thoughts to paper as she did not have any foreign language elective on her college programs. Firstly, let us say a little about our College system here in Athlone, Ireland.
Foreign Languages at the Athlone Institute of Technology
Our College would generally argue that languages are important for two main sets of reasons; the first having to do with personal development and the second a more intellectual esoteric argument. Indeed, Imelda presented a workshop on this topic.
A Foreign Language Policy?
Our college has a developed language policy where, technically, any student from any program can access foreign language studies and we very much welcome this. We provide below a table 1:1 sample from the first year of study for social care students on the B.A. in Social Care Practice which illustrates the range of mandatory and elective modules. In this, we note the three languages of choice as French, German and Spanish and all appear as electives from which the students can choose one.
Table 1:1 B.A. Program in Social Care Practice
So, let us look briefly to the case presented for our three reigning foreign languages in our Department.
The Case for French
Of course, French is one of the world’s great languages, rivalled only by English as the language of international society and diplomacy and is spoken on five continents. French is a language of many international organisations such as NATO, UNESCO and the European Community. Besides being spoken in France, it is one of the official languages of Belgium, of Switzerland and of Luxemburg in Europe and of Canada; it is the official language of Haiti, of more than fifteen African countries, and of various French dependencies such as St. Pierre and Miquelon (off the coast of New-foundland), Guadeloupe and Martinique (in the Caribbean), French Guiana (in South America), Reunion (in the Indian Ocean), and New Caledonia and Tahiti (in the South Pacific).
In addition, French is the unofficial second language of a number of countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. All told, it is the mother tongue of about 75 million people, with millions more familiar with it, in some degree, as a second language. So, the case for French is certainly an impressive one.
The Case for German
German and English are both Germanic languages and more Europeans are native speakers of German than of English, French, Italian or Spanish. As a language of business, diplomacy, and tourism in Western Europe, it stands second only to English, and in the East it holds first place. Eastern European Elementary school students chose German (49%) over English (44%).
The Case for Spanish
Spanish is a dominant language spoken in twenty one countries on five continents. In fact, Spanish is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world spoken by some 300 million people. It is the most commonly spoken language in the US outside of English. 17.5 million people in the US can speak Spanish.
A Path Forward
The Royal Irish Academy conference held in February 2006 called for a national language policy to be developed to help promote learning of other languages. Clearly, we need to get out of our English language comfort zone and attempt to catch up with our European neighbours, for whom it is standard practice to start learning foreign languages at primary school level.
It is against this background of chronic monolingualism that we, in child and youth care at the Athlone Institute of Technology, offer our students the opportunity to study languages, and as we have stated, there are sound reasons for offering French, German and Spanish as language electives to our students. Of course, it would be wonderful for our graduates to leave College competent to speak to their Eastern European and African service users in their own languages, but it is not a feasible option for our Colleges to provide a myriad of courses in the various languages that may be encountered in the multi-racial workplace. Realistically, our response to the changing demographics of our students’ clientele could be two-fold:
Cross Cultural Awareness
Students of child and youth care who take a language as an elective will encounter Cultural Awareness as an integral part of the course syllabus, as the language and culture of a country are inextricably linked. The students learn to appreciate that understanding intercultural differences ultimately promotes clearer communication, breaks down barriers, builds trust, strengthens relationships, opens horizons and yields tangible results in terms of business success. In response to our increasingly internationalised environment, it would seem apparent that all child and youth care students would benefit from a module in Cross Cultural Awareness. Practitioners need to be culturally competent to provide appropriate care to the variety of people who present to them. Immigrant workers and settled refugees already constitute some of our populations ‘at risk’ – from unemployment, poor housing, racial discrimination, difficulties in school etc.
Openness to other cultures will enable practitioners to be sensitive to the beliefs and expectations of their multi-racial service users, rather than imposing their own personal attitudes and views. It is therefore essential to have some insight into the cultural background of the service user in order to communicate effectively and give the best possible care. Topics to be covered in a module in Cross Cultural Awareness could include country and regional profiles from the point of view of history, politics, customs, taboos, values, basic etiquettes, and of course verbal and non-verbal communication.
As child and youth care practitioners are likely to find themselves using interpreters to communicate with certain nationalities, some guidelines on working with an interpreter would also be useful.
All of this would equip the student and practitioner with some basic tools to care for their service users of varying cultures and ethnicity.
Living and Working in Ireland
Relocation to any foreign country can be daunting for even the most travel hardy as it introduces new challenges and significant changes to one’s living and working patterns. Cultural awareness briefings could be provided to foreigners to minimize culture shock and aid the settling-in process. Tips and strategies gained in such a way would increase confidence and make the experience more positive for the families and individuals concerned.
Obviously, there would also be a need to provide English language classes. The inability to speak the language of the host country constitutes a major barrier in the settling-in and integration process. Our immigrants need to have knowledge of English in order to access services and employment, to make a life for themselves in the community. While this need may be reasonably well met in Dublin, it is not clear that adequate provision of English classes exists for immigrants nation wide. Perhaps the providers of Social Care education in Ireland could see this as part of their role?
These are, of course, just some of the areas we can reflect on in terms of preparing our child and youth care students to meet the needs of the changing population demographics in Ireland. Some 70,000 people migrated to Ireland in the 12 months to April 2005, the highest annual immigration figure on record and the number of non-nationals living in the State is estimated to be 350,000, accounting for 8-9 percent of the population of 4.13 million currently living here, according to our Central Statistics Office estimates. Seventeen per cent of these immigrants come from Poland and 9% from Lithuania to take but two examples of countries of origin (Workpermit.com, 1996) so there are signposts as to which foreign languages we might want to develop.
Many people are coming here as economic migrants but there are others who claim that they are forced to flee from their homes and their countries. It seems reasonable to suggest that a high per centage of these families will come into contact with child and youth care or human services. We take it that there are many valid reasons for college programs in offering foreign languages such as French, German and Spanish in their own right, but we would also like to see a futurist approach adopted across the Irish third-level college system in developing a wider portfolio of foreign languages to include, for example, English as a Foreign Language for our new families, Cultural Awareness and, dare we say it, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and some of the African languages.
Dr Niall McElwee is a former Head of Department of Humanities and is currently a senior lecturer in child and youth care and an author some ten books in the area. He is a regular visitor to North America and Europe. He is Director of the Centre for Child and Youth Care Learning at the Athlone Institute of Technology, Ireland.
Imelda Cooke is a lecturer in languages at the Department of Humanities at the Athlone Institute of Technology, Ireland. She has lectured and developed languages for child and youth care programs for over a decade. She is a regular visitor to Europe where she has responsibility for practica.
Susan McKenna is a Degree status graduate of social care. She has worked in the field in a variety of front line and managerial roles including community child care, project work, consulting and in early learning environments for at risk children. Most recently, she was manager of a crèche for disadvantaged children in Galway, Ireland. She is consultant practitioner with SocSci Consultancy.
Athlone Institute of Technology programmatic review, (2005). Athlone: AIT.
American Assoc. of Teachers of German, Dartmouth College, National Council for the Social Studies, St. Olaf College, Univ. of St. Thomas, US News & World Report, World Book Encyclopedia
Cooke, I. (2004). Languages and social care. Paper to the Irish Association of Social Care Educators Annual Conference, Cork.
Irish Independent, 22/02/06. (K. Donnelly and C. Sweeney)