Irish people see no need to bother with learning other languages because they see no economic advantage in doing so. They are probably right.
Ireland should concentrate on speaking English, because that is what it does best. There is little need for Irish people to speak a foreign language. If an Irish company needs a Russian speaker, it will probably soon be able to hire a contractor from a Lithuanian company of translators based in Ireland, paid Lithuanian wages, under this Bolkestein directive thingy.
Who cares if Danish or Dutch or Chinese people need to learn English to win business or get a job? It is clear that English is the language of commerce, and because Irish people already speak it quite well, they should devote their learning time to the acquisition of other skills.
If I were an aspiring captain of industry, I’d learn accountancy of some sort. Learning a language is for fops and A Place In The Sun fans, the sort of thing you do for a couple of months at night class in advance of your purchase of an apartment in Torrevieja, and then you give it up when, on your first stay, you realise that the only pub in the area that serves carvery lunches and Harp lager is owned by a guy who speaks English anyway.
I was never convinced by the argument that a business executive abroad, representing ‘Irish industry’, will be at a competitive advantage if he or she is speaks the host language. Business conversations, if such a thing can be said to exist, are not likely to be particularly nuanced, so it’s not as if you’re missing out on any ironic inflections or subtle allusions. In 99% of the cases, your negotiating partner will speak better English than you speak whatever his or her language is anyway. Besides, the whole ‘we have a very important delegation of Chinese businessmen who want to invest in our bonemeal factory and their decision to do so will hinge on my ability to say “welcome to Laois”’ is so, well, 1980s. Reminiscent of Paul Robinson’s attempts to impress Mr Udugawa in Neighbours.
A little knowledge of a language is probably worse than none at all. Speaking pidgin French, Spanish or Chinese is unlikely endear you to your hosts, especially if they speak perfect English. What your six months of night classes have enabled you to interpret as ‘your Arabic is excellent’ really translates as ‘who is this patronising fool?’ What will endear you to your hosts is if you pay for a decent interpreter, rather than having people wince at your debasement of their national tongue. What might endear you to them even more is to express admiration for their English language skills.
Not speaking the host language, in fact, being totally ignorant of the host language, can be a position of power, especially if you can make it seem as if the interpreter is your slave and you really do speak the language, but you just prefer to devote your brainpower to more pressing concerns.
I think Ireland’s linguistic skills are probably even worse than the survey suggests, and the same applies to the United Kingdom. People in these isles get wind of a few phrases, think they have the foreign language lark cracked, and start bending the ear of the nearest Spaniard or Italian, by whom they expect to be applauded at every rolled ‘r’, as if Spanish or Italian had only become relevant to the world the moment they bought their set of CDs.