The formal negotiations to untangle the UK from the intricacies of the European Union are now well underway. And it is clear that looking forward, Britain’s new relationship with the EU will necessitate conducting trade and political communications in a new dynamic – one which is unlikely to be done in the medium of English.
When the UK leaves the EU there will be no member state remaining where English is the lead official language. “Ah”, you say, “what about Ireland, they speak English there”. Yes they do, but in Ireland, Irish Gaelic is considered the first official language.
So to trade with the EU, the UK will need high-level negotiators fluent in German, French and Spanish, which it currently does not have.
Additionally, leaving the EU will result in a restriction of immigrants from across EU member states. The need for visas will drastically reduce the number of workers who can come to the UK to fill jobs British people are either unwilling or unable to do.
And recognising this gap, the Foreign and Common Wealth office and the Ministry of Defence have opened in-house training centres to provide lessons in up to 80 different languages for their staff.
Much of this lack of language skill can be put down to the fact that children in UK schools do not learn foreign languages with the same intensity as their European neighbours.
In England in particular, languages are seen as boring, irrelevant or too hard – turning many off learning a language at a young age. And the “false-friend” of global English provides a fertile foundation for these ideas.
In contrast young people in the rest of Europe understand the need to speak at least one other language for their future prospects and they are supported by a strong holistic language education system.
Since 2002, there has been a 16% decrease in applications to study a language at British universities. At secondary school level, there has been an even bigger decline – the number of pupils studying for a GCSE in a language has dropped 41%.
The number of young people taking French, German, and Spanish at A-level has also gone down by 22% in the past 14 years. German is the worst hit language – it has seen a decline in students taking it at A-Level of 45%.
A lack of qualified teachers – almost 3,500 more language teachers are needed to meet current demand in Britain – along with a reduction in provision and resources, are just some of the reasons for this national decline in young people choosing to study a language at secondary level.
This comes despite the fact that language provision at primary level is available in some form in almost all schools in England. The failure of the English Baccalaureate to fully engage young people with languages has also been pinpointed as another contributing factor.
Motivating young people is also a big challenge for teachers. At a time when morale is already low among language teachers, it can be hard to get young people to see the relevance of language learning in their own lives and future employment. Getting pupils to see the enjoyment of learning a language can also be difficult.
Part of the challenge is the perceived difficulty of the GCSE and A-Level examinations. As the British Council highlights:
The comparative difficulty of exams in languages in relation to other subjects, and widely reported harsh and inconsistent marking, are deeply demotivating for both pupils and teachers.
Yet, with more investment in language provisions in secondary schools, the need to later train adults in languages while they work would not be necessary.
This lack of language skills across all employment sectors is costing the UK economy an estimated £48 billion each year, and the British Chambers of Commerce lists making language learning compulsory in secondary schools as one of its main factors for economic growth.
It’s at this point that I’m usually asked, “but if Britain is leaving the EU, then why do languages matter anymore?” And my answer is always the same, it is precisely because Britain is leaving the EU that languages matter even more. Not only to avoid isolationist attitudes evolving further, but to ensure that young people have the skills they need to succeed in a global jobs market.
And it’s not just about learning a language – languages open doors, improving mobility, intercultural awareness, empathy, and confidence for the young people who study them.
The benefit of the transferable skills young people gain from learning a language is perhaps more valuable than the language itself. And limiting the access young people have to languages simply means not preparing them for a new post-Brexit world.