Photo adapted from Max-van-den-Oetelaar

The context

A brief overview of language education in higher education in Ireland reveals the multifarious nature of this environment. Publicly available information published on HEIs’ websites, local institutional knowledge, data from the Post-Primary  Languages Initiative (PPLI) as well as responses to HELECs‘ own nationwide questionnaire, all served to define the backdrop for the elaboration of the HELECs framework. 

What languages are offered? 

At tertiary level, the languages most frequently offered as major subjects are French, German and Spanish, followed by Irish and Chinese. Within the system, Chinese, German and Spanish are offered at ab initio level, whereas French is currently only offered at ab initio level in one HEI. A number of languages are offered only as minors or electives at degree level e.g. Dutch, Polish, Korean, Portuguese, Breton, Catalan. 

The majority of the degree programmes where languages can be taken as a major are Bachelors of Arts. Students choose up to four subjects in Year 1 and usually graduate in two subjects either with a major/minor or joint honours degree. For a general three-year Arts programme, there is usually no study abroad period. Arts International programmes are similar but have a mandatory year abroad which is spent at a host country. Arts programmes may have a specialisation. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of language specialist degree programmes, such as the BA in World Languages at UCC, while other such programmes have existed for over 20 years like the BA in Applied Languages at UL. 

Where are languages housed? 

The language provision units at the universities differ in how they are organised. However, at each university there is a School for Languages within which language, culture, linguistics, literature and other subjects are taught. At some universities, the individual languages within the School are designated subjects, disciplines, departments or sections. The School is the digital access point through which information on language teaching and learning is accessed, and shapes the identity of language provision staff. At others, the Department of a specific language seems to be the stronger with the School being an umbrella for these. The position of the Irish language within the Irish education sector has traditionally been and continues to be kept separate from the modern/foreign languages in their own School/Department or indeed integrated into a larger School of Languages but distinctly separate from modern/foreign languages. Turning to the IoT sector, the 11 Institutes of Technology in Ireland and currently two technical universities vary widely in where language is housed ranging from integration with other Arts/Humanities subjects like Law and Sociology to Schools of Business, Schools of Humanities etc

Who is teaching language? 

We established 3 meta-cohorts based on our data: academic staff, teaching-focussed staff and “other” staff. Interestingly, there is almost an equal proportion of academic and teaching-focussed staff involved in language teaching (Irish and foreign languages) within the system. The “other” category here relates predominately to staff who are currently pursuing their doctoral studies and those being paid hourly, on an occasional/part-time basis etc. 

Where language-teaching-focussed roles exist, the labels range from:

  • teaching assistant,
  • university tutor,
  • college language teacher,
  • lector,
  • language instructor/assistant,
  • language demonstrator.

In stark contrast to this, the range of labels associated with the academic hierarchy is more homogenous and clearly delineated within each HEI but still differs somewhat across the system (e.g. Lecturer/Lecturer above the bar/Assistant Professor) although they are clearly aligned.

At some HEIs in the system, our data suggests that language teaching relies significantly on externally funded posts by such organisations as the German Academic Exchange Service, the Austrian Exchange Service, the Confucius Institute, the Catalan Government in order to deliver on their language teaching provision alongside the cohort of contracted university staff. 

The “other” category of staff identified across the system relates to those staff members without any contractual relationship with the university, for language teaching purposes, but rather work on an hourly-paid or part-time basis. In practice, this category is predominately native speakers being used primarily for their linguistic proficiency regardless of their disciplinary background or teacher training. Non-native speakers in this category all hold a Bachelor-level qualification in the language they are teaching. It is important to note that a small proportion of individuals holding this type of employment have not been captured in our data as they do not always have an online presence, and because they are only employed on a needs-basis from semester to semester to fill recruitment holes. This cohort has the most precarious employment conditions in terms of pay levels, continuity and stability of employment, status within the system, involvement in decision-making surrounding language teaching etc. 

What are language educators’ educational background?

In examining the educational profile of language educators within each of the three categories, clear differences and concentrations of disciplines occur. While the vast majority of teaching-focussed staff hold Bachelor-level qualifications in the languages they teach, Masters-level qualifications are more varied in decreasing frequency: Applied Linguistics, Literature, Cultural Studies and Education. Just under half of teaching-focussed staff in our sample already hold or are pursuing PhDs with the majority in the area of Literature. Turning to academic staff, for whom a PhD is a prerequisite, three quarters hold a doctorate in Literary/Cultural Studies, with a fifth holding a doctorate in Applied Linguistics. This suggests that language teaching is not limited to those academic staff members with training and/or interest in language teaching as an area of specialism and research.