In addition to securing the UK’s departure from the EU, the June 2016 Brexit referendum exposed deep-seated prejudice against speakers of languages other than English. Politicians and pundits, including former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, fuelled xenophobic rhetoric by claiming that “in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more”. Meanwhile the media has reported that people are being harassed or attacked on public transport, in shops or on the streets of British towns for “not speaking English”.
Though the EU itself has no plans to use English any less in meetings and documents, Britain cannot rely on this fact to justify its own monolingualism. Speaking other languages and working with other cultures is a global fact and, post-Brexit, Britain will need to work with countries all over the world more than ever.
The troubling presence of linguaphobia is just one legacy of the referendum campaign, but like so many other forms of prejudice, it is nothing new. Linguaphobia is a concept that first developed in the 1950s to identify a form of monolingualism that shows itself in a hostility towards learning other languages. For leading modern linguistics expert Charles Forsdick, post-referendum, this has translated itself into “an ideological phenomenon that judges national belonging in terms of the exclusive use of the English language”.
Yet as Forsdick and others assert, this “ideological monolingualism” is a deeply flawed perception of the history of languages in the UK. It distorts the past and present of multilingualism in the UK, and ill equips the population to face the brave new world of trade and cultural diplomacy it will need to master.
The UK is already – and has always been – a multilingual society. Indigenous British languages, such as Cornish, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh, have helped shape the linguistic landscape of the UK and the peoples’ sense of themselves as Britons over the centuries. Though Cornish has struggled to survive, the Gaelic languages and Welsh still have strong support to this day.
But the impact of these languages is not limited to history. Welsh language learning is currently undergoing an unprecedented period of state investment. It is being positioned as integral to a new Welsh school curriculum that explores what it means to be a curious, critically minded and ethically informed Welsh citizen of the world.
In more recent times, the UK linguistic landscape has been enriched by languages associated with changing patterns of migration to the UK, such as Polish and Arabic. These linguistic communities are a social and cultural resource that have the potential to support the UK’s resilience in response to the uncertain world around it.
The place of the English language as the world’s preferred second language is changing. As a recent study of languages after Brexit has highlighted, just 6% of the world’s population are native English speakers and 75% speak no English at all. There are now more blogs in Japanese than English, while Arabic is the fastest-growing language across all social media. The proportion of web content written in English is reducing, while web content in Mandarin Chinese is expanding.
Not only is English losing ground internationally but, as we know, in any negotiation, building trust and mutual understanding is key to success. Poor language skills in the UK were estimated to cost the UK 3.5% GDP in 2014. How will this growing language deficit play out in the charged and tense atmosphere of trade and investment after the country leaves the EU? Will the UK’s international and European partners continue to work with the current default setting of business via the medium of English?
The UK needs to value the linguistic superdiversity that has come with its long and rich history of migration and immigration. Languages build bridges, open doors and connect the country to others who support the nation’s health, wealth and well-being. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. The UK must win hearts as well as minds to avoid increasing isolation post-Brexit. This means encouraging young people to open their eyes to the rest of the world. Learning languages is a crucial way to achieve this.