Irish Schools Should Focus More on Linguistic Diversity, Trinity Academic Says

11 June 2019

A greater focus on “heritage languages”, in addition to English and Irish learning, is needed in Irish schools, a leading academic has said today. The academic made the comment at a roundtable discussion on Linguistic Diversity in Irish Classrooms, hosted by migrant network organisation New Communities Partnership (NCP), in conjunction with the SIRIUS network and the ESRI.

The roundtable discussion, which brought together school principals, representatives from Tusla and the Department of Education, and other education experts was organised to examine the experiences of bilingual children in Ireland, the challenges facing teachers in Ireland, and the best practices developed and implemented in other European countries.

Speaking at the discussion in the Teacher’s Club, Dublin, Francesca La Morgia – a lecturer in clinical speech and language studies at Trinity College Dublin – said that a focus on only English and Irish in schools may cause migrant students to “lose their heritage languages” (meaning the languages that their parents speak). This is despite the social and educational benefits a multilingual classroom setting offers to both migrant students and their Irish-born peers. It is also happening despite the fact that the benefits of multilingual classroom settings have been identified as important an Irish Government’s Languages Connect strategy, which places huge importance of foreign languages and on heritage language learning.

“The mainstream primary education system currently tends to focus only on the curricular languages English and Irish while heritage language transmission is the responsibility of families, communities and local initiatives,” Dr. La Morgia said. “However, the role heritage languages play for a child’s development of academic skills as well as their psychosocial wellbeing is recognised in the Irish Primary Language Curriculum, which encourages teachers to enhance children’s skills through their entire linguistic repertoire.”

She continued: “The curriculum mentions that teachers should foster linguistic diversity and encourage children to develop skills in all of their languages. This includes home languages/heritage languages. However, teachers are not yet trained with a focus on linguistic diversity.”

When pupils feel that their languages and cultures are affirmed they are more likely to develop a strong sense of identity, she said. Additionally, using heritage languages in the classroom also benefits children who only speak the majority language, as it helps them to gain a better understanding of how other people express themselves, resulting in more openness among pupils, respect and intercultural competence. For these and other reasons, Dr. La Morgia said, promoting a variety of languages in primary school education is of benefit to all.

“Heritage language speakers benefit from using their mother tongue because it eases the transition from home to school and because it values their identity and their experiences outside the school,” she told the attendees of the roundtable discussion. “For children who are new to the majority language, being able to use the heritage language allows them to rely on knowledge they have developed in their early childhood to transfer literacy skills and learning strategies.”

NCP Youth coordinator Sevak Khachatryan added, “As Dr. La Morgia noted, there is a huge positive effect to children from learning in a diverse environment, which presents a strong opportunity for schools to encourage curiosity and independent learning by taking advantage of all the languages children speak in the school. This is something that is incredibly achievable in a country the size of Ireland; in Finland, which has a similar population size, it’s normal for schools even in rural areas to be multilingual. This is definitely something Ireland could adopt to great effect for the benefit of all pupils.”

Misconceptions at home and in school

The issue of the loss of heritage languages wasn’t just restricted to the education system however, Dr. La Morgia said. Parents from migrant backgrounds also sometimes discourage their children from using their heritage language, believing it will help the child to better assimilate into mainstream English speaking society.

“However, research shows that bilingualism does not hinder language development nor academic achievement, and it carries great cognitive benefits,” she said. This is especially problematic when the heritage language is not perceived to be a “useful” one.

“There is the idea that some languages are more useful than others, so both parents and teachers have a bias towards languages that seem to be useful for travel, work, or languages that have a high status like French and Spanish, and often do not give enough value of home languages that are spoken by only a few and are not generally learned as foreign languages (such as Greek or Swahili or Tamil).”

Dr. La Morgia said that in addition to a lack of training, a lack of confidence may be preventing some teachers from encouraging multilingualism in the primary school context.

“A lack of diversity in the teaching force may mean that teachers often don't know much about the languages of their pupils,” she said. “Teachers are also sometimes scared of using these languages as a resource because they feel that if they can't speak them they can't use them.”

Dr. La Morgia’s recommendation is that teacher training should place more emphasis on techniques that make the most of children’s heritage languages.

Mr. Khachatryan echoes this. “As Ireland continues its focus on diversity and inclusion, in the coming years I expect we’ll have more teachers from a migrant background who bring their own multilingual skills to the classroom. In the meantime, individual teachers might benefit on a personal and professional level by taking classes in the languages their students and their parents speak. Even being able to say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ can help to create a welcoming and warm space where everyone feels included.”



Event details: The National Roundtable on education, hosted by NCP in collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and the SIRIUS European Policy Network, was held in the Teacher’s Club Dublin on Tuesday 11th of June 2019 from 11.00 am to 1.00 pm.

Languages Connect Strategy: Languages Connect – Ireland’s Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education 2017-2026 and Implementation Plan 2017-2022, which was launched by then Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton, was developed in the context of Action 1.6 of the Department of Education’s Action Plan for Education 2016-2019. This plan aims to enable learners to communicate effectively and improve their standards of competence in languages and so fulfil the Department’s ambition to make Ireland’s education system the best in Europe within the next decade. For more information, see:

Migrant Population: According to the Census 2016, as of April 2016, there were 535,475 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland. Of those, children aged 0 to 14 years accounted for 12.5%. The same census also showed that 612,018 Irish residents spoke a language other than Irish or English at home, an increase of 19.1% since 2011. Of these, 363,715 were non-Irish nationals and the top languages spoken were Polish (113,225), Lithuanian (30,502) Romanian (26,645) and Portuguese (16,737). See for more details.


The SIRIUS European Policy Network is a leading international policy network, which focuses on the challenges within and opportunities to improve outcomes in migrant education. It has been acting as an advisor to the European Commission since 2012.

New Communities Partnership (NCP), Ireland’s only migrant-led network of more than 150 member groups, is a partner to SIRIUS since January 2014. NCP’s membership of SIRIUS allows the organisation to represent migrants at an EU level and to effect change and better understand how to optimise learning outcomes for migrant pupils in Ireland.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) is a leading organisation in research, which produces independent, high-quality research with the objective of informing policies that support a healthy economy and promote social progress.


Erica Mills, Communications Officer for NCP on(087) 396 7609 or email: