Après Brexit: tackling the UK’s language learning deficit

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Level G StudioStudio Conversations


At a time when there is already a shortage of modern-languages teachers, some educational commentators are concerned that Brexit could bring about a full-blown crisis in language teaching. Teachers from the EU, who make up 35 per cent of language teachers in England, may no longer be willing to come to the UK to teach and EU-funded projects such as ERASMUS+ could be threatened.The UK already has a longstanding problem with monolingualism that has been compounded in recent years by the declining numbers of pupils taking language courses. As a British Council report, Language Trends 2017, notes: ‘The number of pupils taking a language at A-level is down by one third since 1996, with a decrease of three per cent in the past year alone.’ With the residency of EU translators, interpreters and teachers under question, some fear that Brexit could entrench such problems and contribute to a rise in inward-looking attitudes.

But the demands of global free trade after Brexit mean that we will need to be more outward-looking and start producing linguists who will be able to do business with non-European countries like China and Brazil. As the British Academy argues, languages are essential for employability, trade, business and the economy, security, diplomacy and soft power, research, social understanding and social cohesion. In these circumstances, can we still afford to consider language skills as an optional extra or a luxury for the privileged few?

Aside from economic concerns, there seems to be a wider apathy about the value of learning a second language that underpins the poor take-up of languages in schools. With tools such as Google Translate or real-time translation built into Skype, many are wondering whether there is even any need to learn a language. The joys of reading foreign literature in the original, or engaging in spontaneous conversation abroad, seem to have little purchase today. With this in mind, what would be needed to inspire, rather than incentivise, people to learn languages?

Perhaps the problem isn’t really Brexit or insular attitudes but a lack of resources in state schools. Language learning is heavily skewed towards independent schools, which made up only 18 per cent of the post-16 pupil cohort, but provided 32 per cent of language-examination entries. According to Language Trends, ‘the number of schools employing teaching/language assistants is very low at 4.8 per cent. This compares with six per cent in 2015.’ Safeguarding rules are also making exchange trips abroad much harder for schools.

One way forward may be to make better use of expert language skills already widely used in our multilingual, multicultural communities. But how can this be done? And with some arguing that speaking English is a core part of citizenship and British values, would this clash with today’s political priorities?

Who will teach modern languages in the future and how can we inspire students to pursue them? Will Brexit exacerbate existing problems or force a shake-up in language provision? Can we simply rely on others to learn English, even if it puts us at a disadvantage when they can join our conversations but we are shut out of theirs? Post-Brexit, what can we do to remedy the UK’s language-skills deficit?