UK - Northern Ireland

Country context

Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million people. While English is the vernacular, the 2001 census found that 10% of the population reported ‘some knowledge’ of Irish1. Since the stabilisation of the political situation in the late 1990s the country has attracted an increasing number of migrants. Following the 2001 Census, the most significant language groups were identified as Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese; however more recent immigration from the Accession Eight (A8) countries of the European Union has given Polish, followed by Lithuanian, a significant presence. Three per cent of primary schoolchildren currently have a language other than English as their first language; rising to 11% in Dungannon, the most diverse district2.

Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) (2002) Northern Ireland Census 2001: Key Statistics Report. Belfast: HMSO
Registrar General Northern Ireland Annual Report 2010, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2011. Pupil data from School Census, October 2010.

Languages in official documents and databases

English, foreign languages and R/M languages are dealt with in language legislation and/or language policy documents in Northern Ireland. The learning and teaching of English abroad for children and/or adults originating from the UK is (co-)funded in Belgium, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Falkland Islands, Germany, Gibraltar, Italy and the Netherlands. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages has been signed and ratified by the UK. In Northern Ireland, the following R/M languages are recognised in the Charter: Irish and Ulster Scots. There is official provision in region-wide education, supported by the Charter, for Irish.

Official data collection mechanisms on language diversity in Northern Ireland exist in terms of periodically updated census data. In these data collection mechanisms, national, R/M and immigrant language varieties are addressed, based on a main language question, plus a language proficiency question in terms of whether (and how well) this language can be spoken/understood/read/written.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 set out principles of respect and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity. ‘The Irish language, Ulster Scots and the languages of the various ethnic minorities’ were all explicitly mentioned as contributing to the ‘cultural wealth’ of the province1.  The North/South Language Body, established on 2 December 1999 and comprising two separate agencies, Foras na Gaeilge (Irish Language Agency) and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch (Ulster-Scots Agency), promotes Irish and Ulster Scots and implements policies agreed by Ministers in the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with regard to these two languages. In August 2000 the Department of Education in Northern Ireland established Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta to encourage and facilitate the strategic development of Irish medium education and provide guidance and advice to the Irish-medium sector.

There are published statutory requirements for foreign languages teaching in the lower secondary phase (11-14) only2. In 2006 the Department of Education commissioned the development of a Comprehensive Languages Strategy for Northern Ireland, ‘considering all aspects of languages: at primary, secondary, further and higher education levels, English as an additional language, languages for business, the languages of Northern Ireland, immigrant mother tongues, sign language, languages for special needs’ but this has yet to report3

English language support (EAL) was reviewed completely 2005-9 with the policy Every School a Good School - Supporting Newcomer Pupils launched on 1 April 2009.

The UK government recognises Irish and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland under the ECRML Languages. 

Official UK-wide data collection mechanisms on language diversity exist in terms of periodically updated municipal register data, census data and survey data. In these data collection mechanisms, national, regional and immigrant language varieties are addressed.

Agreement reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations (‘The Good Friday Agreement’) (1998) Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland.
www.nicurriculum.org.uk/key_stage_3/areas_of_learning/modern_languages/
www.arts.ulster.ac.uk/nils/index.php

Languages in pre-primary education

 

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages

Additional NL
support

National Languages
Target groups
R/ML: all  native speakers only  no support 
FL: all  restricted  no support 
IL: all  native speakers only  no support
NL: all  immigrant children only  no support 
3 none none 3
Duration
≥2 years 1 year <1 year  
3 none none 3
Minimum group size requirements
 none  5-10  >10
1 none none 3
Days per week
 >1 day  0.5-1 day  <0.5 day
3 none none 2
Pre-service teacher training
subject-specific general none
3 none none 3
In-service teacher training
subject-specific general none
3 none none 3
State funding available
full partial none
3 none none 3

Languages offered in pre-primary education

R/M Languages

Irish

Foreign Languages

-

Immigrant Languages

-

Children with limited ability in English often receive extra support and the teachers who provide this receive pre- and in-service training. Foreign languages are generally not taught in pre-primary, but there are 44 Irish medium pre-schools1 and at least one private French-English bilingual nursery2.

www.deni.gov.uk/index/85-schools/10-types_of_school-nischools_pg/schools_-_types_of_school-_irish-medium_schools_pg/schools_-_types_of_school_lists_of_irishmedium_schools_pg.htm
Report of the Review of Irish medium education, Department for Education for Northern Ireland, undated.

Languages in primary education

Organisation

 

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages
Curriculum
coherent and explicit general no guidelines  
3 3 none
Languages used as a medium of instruction (CLIL)
  widespread localised absent  
3 2 none
Target groups
R/ML: all  native speakers only  no support
FL: all  restricted  no support
IL: all  native speakers only  no support
3 3 none
Start of language education
from year 1 from mid-phase end-phase only  
3 3 none
Scheduling
in school hours partly in school hours  outside school hours   
3 2 none
Minimum group size requirements
none 5-10 >10  
1 3 none
Monitoring of language skills
national standardised  school based  absent   
2 3 none
Level to be achieved
Other NL: national or regional norms school norms not specified
FL: linked to CEFR national or school norms not specified
IL: national or regional norms school norms not specified
1 1 none
State funding available
full partial none  
3 3 none

 

NL

National Languages
Curriculum
coherent and explicit general no guidelines  
2
Extra support for newcomers
before mainstream during mainstream  absent   
3
Diagnostic testing on entry
all immigrants only absent  
3
Monitoring of language skills
national standardised  school based  absent   
3

Teaching

 

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages
Teacher qualifications
language teachers general teachers  unqualified   
3 2 none
Pre-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3 1 none
In-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3 3 none
Mobility
incorporated into training informal financial support no informal financial support not applicable  
0 1 0

 

NL

National Languages
Teacher qualifications
language teachers general teachers  unqualified   
3
Pre-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3
In-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3

Languages offered in primary education

R/M Languages

Irish

Foreign Languages

French, Spanish: optional

Immigrant Languages

-

Irish medium education (IME) has been increasing in Northern Ireland since the first Irish medium primary school was set up by parents, outside the mainstream system, in 1971. 1.67% of all primary schoolchildren now attend IME primary schools or IME units within English language primary schools and the number is increasing year on year. IME is supported by government policy.

Modern Languages did not find a place in the new Northern Ireland primary curriculum which was revised in 2007, despite a positive evaluation of pilot projects which took place between 2005 and 2007, involving 21 schools teaching mainly French, with some Spanish. Despite the lack of curricular requirement, a survey in 2007 found that 57% of responding primary schools were making some provision for the teaching of a second language, although in over half of cases this was in the form of extra-curricular activity. The new curriculum encourages the teaching of modern languages within a multidisciplinary framework and guidance has been published to help teachers develop and integrate this. This guidance includes online resources for French, German, Irish and Spanish.  From 2008 the Department of Education for Northern Ireland funded a Primary Languages Programme which provided peripatetic teachers in Spanish or Irish to work alongside existing Key Stage 1 primary school classroom teachers (Polish was also included from 2009). The scheme was criticised for excluding French, which is the most widely taught language in secondary education. By 2009, 247 schools had participated in Spanish and 76 in Irish1.

Newcomers receive intensive support in English before and during mainstream classes and there has been a concerted effort to provide EAL support in recent years as Northern Ireland has welcomed an increasing number of immigrants. Immigrant languages are not offered other than, occasionally, Polish.

Primary languages in Northern Ireland: too little, too late? Purdy et al, Language Learning Journal vol 38, 2, 2010

Languages in secondary education

Organisation

 

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages
Curriculum
coherent and explicit general no guidelines  
2 2 none
Languages used as a medium of instruction (CLIL)
widespread localised absent  
2 1 none
Target groups
R/ML: all  native speakers only  no support
FL: all  restricted  no support
IL: all  native speakers only  no support
3 3 none
Scheduling
in school hours partly in school hours outside school hours  
3 3 none
Minimum group size requirements
none 5-10 >10  
1 3 none
Monitoring of language skills
national standardised school based absent  
3 3 none
Level to be achieved
Other NL: national or regional norms school norms not specified not applicable
FL: linked to CEFR national or school norms not specified not applicable
IL: national or regional norms school norms not specified not applicable
3 1 none
State funding available
full partial none  
3 3 none

 

NL

National Languages
Curriculum
coherent and explicit general no guidelines  
2
Extra support for newcomers
before mainstream during mainstream absent  
3
Diagnostic testing on entry
all immigrants only absent  
1
Monitoring of language skills
national standardised school based absent  
3

Teaching

 

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages
Teacher qualifications
language teachers general teachers unqualified  
3 2 none
Pre-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3 3 none
In-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3 3 none
Mobility
incorporated into training some financial support none not applicable  
0 2 0
Language level required
linked to CEFR national or region-wide standards none not applicable  
0 2 0

 

NL

National Languages
Teacher qualifications
language teachers general teachers unqualified  
3
Pre-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3
In-service teacher training
subject-specific general none  
3
Language level required for non-native speakers
linked to CEFR national or school-based norms not specified  
1

Languages offered in secondary education

R/M Languages

Irish

Foreign Languages

Compulsory: One from French, German, Spanish

Immigrant Languages

-

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.

Up until the introduction of the Northern Ireland Curriculum in 1989, Irish was the second most common language after French despite being taught only in the Maintained (Catholic) sector, and maintained this position in GCSE entries until 2002. The language was excluded from fulfilling the compulsory language requirement offered by schools under the Northern Ireland Curriculum1 but since 2006 has been reinstated. A GCSE Irish medium (Gaeilge) exam was introduced in 1993 to cater for the relatively small number of post-primary pupils being educated through Irish. Irish medium education presents more difficulties at secondary level than primary as a result of a lack of teachers able to teach other subjects through Irish at this level. Fewer than 0.5% of all secondary pupils are in Irish medium education.

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

Newcomers receive extra support in English before and during mainstream classes. There is not a needs-based diagnosis of English language skills before entering secondary education, but skills are monitored regularly using age appropriate standard instruments. As with Primary education, there has been a concerted effort to provide EAL support in recent years as Northern Ireland has welcomed an increasing number of immigrants. Immigrant languages are not offered.

McKendry, E. (2007) Minority-language Education in a Situation of Conflict: Irish in English-medium Schools in Northern Ireland. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Vol. 10, No. 4, 2007, 394-409.

Languages in Further and Higher Education

Further Education (in three institutions)

 

Institution A Institution B Institution C

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages

R/ML

Regional/Minority Languages

FL

Foreign Languages

IL

Immigrant Languages
Range of language support programmes
 wide variety  limited  no specifications
2 3 none 3 3 none 2 3 none
Curriculum
coherent and explicit general no guidelines
3 3 none 3 3 none 3 3 none
Level to be achieved
linked to CEFR national none not applicable
0 3 0 0 2 0 0 2 0
State funding available
full partial none
2 2 none 2 2 none 1 2 none

Additional NL
support

National Languages

Additional NL
support

National Languages

Additional NL
support

National Languages
Range of language support programmes
 wide variety  limited  no specifications
3 3 3
Target groups
all restricted none
3 3 3
Curriculum
coherent and explicit general no guidelines
3 3 3
Job related skills
yes no
3 3 1
General upskilling
yes no
3 3 3
State funding available
full partial none
3 3 3
Internships in companies
built into course optional none
1 1 1
Use of EU instruments
yes no
1 1 1

Languages offered across 3 VET institutions in Northern Ireland

R/M Languages

Irish, Ulster Scots

Foreign Languages

French, Spanish, Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Arabic, Greek, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish

Immigrant Languages

-

Higher Education (in two institutions)

 

Institution A

Institution B

Language(s) of instruction
 national, foreign and R/M national and foreign national only
1 1
Languages on website
 national, foreign and R/M national and foreign national only
1 1
Target groups for additional support in the national language
all restricted none
3 3
Level to be achieved in foreign language instruction
linked to CEFR national or institution-based none
2 2
Recruitment of non-national students
 international and immigrant only international only native speakers of national language
2 3
Mobility for language students
obligatory optional no offer
3 3
Mobility for non-language students
obligatory optional no offer
2 2

Languages offered across 2 higher education institutions in Northern Ireland

French, German, Irish, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Chinese, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, British Sign Language, Swedish and Turkish

In common with the rest of the UK, there is very little provision for languages in vocational courses, although Northern Ireland’s two universities (Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster) both 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.  Northern Ireland is a long way from being self-sufficient in producing linguists in the languages likely to be most needed by its businesses in future, such as Asian languages and a wider range of European languages.

Languages in Audiovisual Media and Press

 

Belfast

Number of languages on radio
>4 3-4 1-2 national language only
2
Number of languages on television
>4 3-4 1-2 national language only
3
Non-national language TV productions
subtitled dubbed
4
Non-national language films in cinema
subtitled dubbed
4
R/M language programmes outside of region
always regularly sometimes never
3
Availability of sign language on TV
always regularly sometimes never
3

Languages offered in audiovisual media and press in 1 city in Northern Ireland

Radio

Irish, Cantonese Chinese

Television

Irish, Scottish Gaelic, French, Ulster Scots

Newspapers

-

Radio programmes are offered mainly in English, with several hours a week in Irish and a few minutes in Cantonese. Television programmes are mainly in English but there are listed broadcasts in Irish, Scots Gaelic, French and Ulster Scots. However the concept of ‘terrestrial channels’ is becoming obsolete in the digital age with foreign language television and radio channels widely available via Freeview, online and satellite. Sign language is regularly offered in important media events. Foreign Language press is not always available in hard copy but is widely available digitally.

Languages in public services and spaces

Institutionalised language strategies at city level

> 4 3-4 1-2  national language only

frequency of practice: widely practised occasionally practised not practised

Belfast

City council services

6

Website presence

0

Annual municipal reports

0

External or internal translators and interpreters

3

Competencies in languages other than the national language in job descriptions of staff members

0

Plan or scheme in place to increase skills in languages

0

Recruitment of speakers of other languages to support corporate objectives

1

Offer of training in languages to employees

3

Regularly updated record of skills in languages of employees

0

Reward or promotion schemes for being able to adequately communicate in other languages

0

Oral Communications Facilities

>4 3-4 1-2 national language only

Belfast

Political debates and decision-making processes at the city council level

4

Educational services

2

Emergency services

4

Health services

4

Social services

4

Legal services

4

Transport services

2

Immigration and integration services

4

Tourism services

4

Theatre programmes

1

Written Communications Facilities

>4 3-4 1-2 national language only

Belfast

Political debates and decision-making processes at the city council level

2

Educational services

2

Emergency services

4

Health services

4

Social services

4

Legal services

2

Transport services

3

Immigration and integration services

4

Tourism services

3

Theatre programmes

1

Languages offered in public services and spaces across 1 city in Northern Ireland (N ≥ 2)

Irish, Polish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Portuguese, Lithuanian, Arabic, French, Ulster Scots, British Sign Language, German, Hindi, Italian, Slovak, Spanish

The Good Friday agreement, together with recent immigration, appears to have raised awareness of language issues in public life and of the need for public service translation and interpreting. According to the Language Rich Europe research, many public bodies in Belfast provide information not only in Irish – and, to a lesser extent, Ulster Scots – but also in languages such as Polish, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Slovak , Cantonese and Arabic. The languages supported are defined by the languages of the communities being served.

Languages in business

Although not surveyed by Language Rich Europe, in common with the rest of the UK, Northern Irish employers are not very language aware. However improved language skills would support the Northern Irish economy in facing challenges ranging from increasing exports to promoting tourism and inward investment.

Key Findings overall

The last decade or so has seen enormous changes in Northern Ireland. From being a country of emigration and conflict in the late 20th century it has become more peaceful and more globally connected with an increase in tourism, low cost air travel and immigration. Although it is still probably least linguistically diverse of the four UK nations, its history makes it sensitive to issues of language and culture and the measures adopted so far have been inclusive. However, as the Language Rich Europe research shows, Northern Ireland has a weak profile as regards foreign language learning and now needs to give this a much higher priority at all levels in the education system.

Promising initiatives and pilots

The proposed Languages Strategy for Northern Ireland, the result of more than five years’ consultation and discussion with policymakers, is intended to provide an assessment of needs and an action plan across the full spectrum of languages in education, business and public life and should offer opportunities for some focused development.

There have been some encouraging examples of development in Northern Ireland as regards teacher training in languages. A successful development is reported at Stranmillis University College to introduce an optional primary languages module which has now become an embedded feature of the Bachelor of Education (BEd) course1.  In response to the demand for subject specific teachers in the growing Irish Medium Post Primary sector, St. Mary’s University College, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster have formed a partnership to offer a one year PGCE course to students interested in becoming teachers in Irish Medium secondary education. Additional places have been added to the PGCE intake quotas for both universities, specifically for those applicants who wish to teach in the Irish Medium Post-Primary sector. On completion of the course, these students will be awarded a Certificate in Bilingual Education from St. Mary’s University College in addition to their PGCE qualification.

Report of the Review of Irish medium education, Department for Education for Northern Ireland, undated.

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