Lost in translation

Brexit requires us to change attitudes towards learning foreign languages

Over 1.5 billion people in the world speak English, which is around 20% of the Earth’s population. As an English-speaking citizen, you can pretty much guarantee that anywhere you go in the world you’ll probably be able to get by sufficiently because “everyone speaks English.” In fact, we’re often rather shocked when someone can’t communicate with us in English, our instinctive thought is, “What’s wrong with them?” But, what does this say about us as a nation? And, in an increasingly globalised world how far will this attitude get us?

English is not the only dominant language, though we should not doubt its significance. GoFluent, an online language training site, claims that Mandarin is now the language of business, particularly in international trade and the business market. After Brexit, we will be looking globally to establish trade connections with countries like China and in negotiating deals with individual European countries, the ability to speak languages is a vitally necessary skill. It is essential in matters of national security, diplomacy and soft power as without knowing the language of a country it is much harder to understand its people’s culture and therefore views.

However, a recent report by the BBC indicates that learning foreign languages at schools across the UK has hit an 18-year low. The last two decades have seen a drastic decline in students studying a language at secondary school and consequently at university. The study found that A level entries for modern languages are down by a third in 10 years, with the number of students taking German falling by 16% in 2017. The number of undergraduates in modern languages fell by 54% between 2008-9 and 2017-18. With less students applying, at least 10 modern languages departments across the country have closed down in the last decade. The lack of undergraduates studying modern languages has severely reduced the pool of prospective teachers which in turn perpetuates a cycle of lack of demand and consequently supply which leads to even less demand.

Shirely Laws, subject leader for PCGE languages at the Institute of Education in London, attributes this reduction in language uptake to the government decision to make languages optional at GCSE level in 2004. In a government-imposed system that measures schools on countless league tables, schools are incredibly conscious of their exam results and as languages are perceived as ‘hard’ subjects they often don’t encourage all students to study them as it may reflect badly on the school’s league table position.

There have been regular calls from industry and educational bodies for foreign language learning to be taken more seriously in the UK. As of last week, the British Academy has urged the government to develop a national languages strategy. Backed by the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy statement says that the prospect of Brexit ‘makes it even more important for the UK to have the languages needed to forge wider commercial and other links.’ The four national academies say that the UK’s poor language capacity has resulted in the loss of economic, social, cultural, and research opportunities. The economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance in terms of lost trade and investment has been estimated at 3.5% of GDP.

David Cannadine, President of the British Academy, said that:

“Language skills cannot be perceived as nice-to-have. The UK has the potential to become a linguistic powerhouse. If it did, it would be more prosperous, productive, influential and, literally, healthier. Languages must be the wind in global Britain’s sails.”

With the 29th March looming ever closer and the uncertainty of life post Brexit, one thing we can be certain of is that attitudes towards learning other languages need to change in this country and this starts in schools. To give the next generation the best skill-set to excel in the international sphere, without the support of the EU, we need to better understand our neighbours rather than push them further away. As a nation we have opened up our stomachs to the cuisine of other countries; our ears to music across the globe and our eyes to the artists of the world. Now it’s time we learned to love languages.  

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