What does Brexit mean for language learning in the UK?

By Hannah Brunton

Concerns about language learning in the UK are nothing new. For the past decade, language learning in the UK has been in continuous decline, with teachers citing increasingly difficult GCSE and A-level exams as a cause of the drop in the number of students studying foreign languages at university level. The number of pupils taking a language at A-level has decreased by a third in the past 10 years, and at university level the number has fallen by half in the same period.

The value of language learning in today’s world is clear. On an individual level, learning a foreign language is known to improve cognitive abilities, social skills and overall literacy, and increase employability. In a global context, languages are vital to a country’s capacity to interact with the wider world and establish cultural and commercial relationships. Back in 2017 it was estimated that the UK was losing out on £4.8bn (3.5% of the GDP) every year as a result of its lack of language skills.

The decrease in language learning in the UK brings with it concerns about the position of the UK in a multilingual world, and its relationships with other countries, and these concerns have been compounded by uncertainty around Brexit, and what leaving the EU will mean for the UK as a globalised society.

The ‘Brexit effect’

The term “Brexit effect” has been coined to describe the impact of the 2016 referendum in a wide variety of contexts, language learning being one of them.

A recent report by the British Council has suggested that Brexit is having a negative impact on language learning in schools, with a shift in attitudes and an increasing number of pupils and their parents feeling that European language skills will be of limited use following the UK’s exit from the EU.

It has also been warned that opportunities for students to interact with foreign culture are becoming much less frequent, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, as school trips abroad and exchange programmes are in decline amid Brexit uncertainty, a problem which is likely to worsen and become more complicated after the UK leaves the EU.

A shortage of language teachers and expertise in schools is another issue which Brexit looks set to exacerbate, particularly as a high proportion of language teachers employed in the UK are EU nationals.

In his 2018 book, ‘Languages after Brexit: how the UK speaks to the world’, Michael Kelly brings together pieces from various specialists in languages and language policy, looking at where the UK currently stands in its language capacity and the issues it is currently facing in this context, and how it might meet its changing language needs in a post-Brexit climate. The book is divided into four parts, looking at:

  • The UK’s place within a world of languages.
  • What the UK needs in terms of languages.
  • Where the UK stands in its language capacity.
  • What can be done to make the UK language ready?

Kelly looks at current attitudes toward foreign languages in the UK, and explains the factors which affect these. According to the 2012 Eurobarometer survey, just 39% of British people felt they could hold a conversation in at least one other language, compared with the European average of 54%, and Kelly suggests, the 2016 referendum result helped to exacerbate the general hostility in the UK towards foreign languages.

Interestingly, Kelly emphasises the fact that the UK is not alone in its difficulties with languages, with many of its significant trade partners having a lower level of capability in English than is often imagined, which adds to concerns around the UK’s capacity to be involved in international conversations.

Which languages to learn?

It is well understood that the demand for European language skills is set to increase, as British companies learn to navigate their relationships with EU customers without being able to rely on employing EU nationals to fulfil their language needs. This of course brings with it employment opportunities for people in the UK, but it is worth asking which languages will be most in demand.

In Languages After Brexit, Kelly suggests that part of the problem in the UK is that there is no clear foreign language which should be learned as a priority (at least not in the way that English is an agreed priority language in many of the countries who trade with the UK).

German Ambassador, Peter Wittig, has suggested that German would be the best choice, as it is the most common first language in Europe and the most in demand among employers. Despite this, only 5% of secondary schools currently offer German, and the number of students learning German is falling fast (along with French).

Spanish remains the most popular, which is no bad thing – a 2013 British Council report (B34855) identified Spanish as the most important language for the UK for the next 20 years, followed by, in order, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. While specific language priorities may change following the UK’s exit from the EU, Kelly argues that developing and broadening the UK’s overall range of language competencies should be the main focus.

The need for a national language strategy

Earlier this year, the UK National Academies published a “call for action”, in which they set out the importance of multilingualism and the areas in which the UK are falling short. They argue that, while it brings unique challenges, Brexit can be seen as a unique opportunity for the UK to refocus its approach to language learning and turn the UK into a ‘linguistic powerhouse’. The report urges Government, businesses and policy-makers to:

  • engage with the coalition of organisations who stand willing to explore the steps needed
  • adopt and implement a national strategy for languages

The strategy, they suggest, would need to span beyond just education, and would require collaboration across sectors and policy areas, and would aim to open up language learning opportunities to all people, at all stages of life.

In the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland, education-specific language strategies have been in place for some time. Scotland’s ‘1+2 Approach’ was launched in 2012 and is hoped to be fully implemented by 2021, and Wales’ ‘Global Futures’ strategy was launched in 2015 and will run until 2020. Therefore, a national strategy would require strategic and effective coordination between all regions of the UK, to develop an effective and united strategy.

At the end of Languages after Brexit, the authors summarise the potential approaches and steps towards implementing a language strategy, and propose a range of specific action within the following nine themes:

  1. Develop a comprehensive strategic plan.
  2. Manage the impact of Brexit.
  3. Improve collaboration across government.
  4. Raise the public profile of languages.
  5. Improve language education.
  6. Improve intercultural and other skills.
  7. Support teachers.
  8. Recognise community languages.
  9. Recognise languages outside the education system.

The potential benefits of such a strategy, as set out in the report, include improved employability, skills and productivity; higher attainment standards across the school curriculum; stronger trade and business links; improved social mobility and cohesion; and improved health and wellbeing.

Pensées finales

In summary, Brexit clearly presents the UK with a long-term challenge when it comes to languages, and existing concerns about the lack of multilingualism in the UK have been compounded by uncertainty brought about by the referendum.

Tackling the UK’s shortfall in multilingualism is likely to take time, however, the potential for a change in this area has been widely recognised, and publications like those discussed here have set out set-out detailed and specific proposals for a new comprehensive strategy, which could prompt practical conversations and help policy-makers find a way forward.

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