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Analysis

‘Global Britain’ turns inwards as fewer kids learn languages

by Luke Lythgoe | 03.07.2019

Boris Johnson and his cheerleaders repeatedly claim Brexit will make the UK a “proud, outward-looking nation”. Leaving aside the fact that we already were a proudly outward-looking nation, Brexit has in fact started having the opposite effect. The latest example of this is the downturn in foreign-language learning and other international engagement in our schools.

Since 2014, there has been a 19% decline in pupils taking modern foreign languages at GCSE, according to an annual British Council survey. Both German and French have seen a 30% decrease in those five years, with Spanish – the third most commonly taught language – also falling 2%. The decline has accelerated since the referendum.

Although the perceived difficulty of studying languages, and likelihood of getting a good grade compared with other subjects, remains the dominant factor putting pupils off, the British Council’s survey found Brexit is exacerbating the situation.

Teachers said Brexit had “cast a pall over languages”. Respondents to the survey said they had heard parents argue there was “little to no use to [languages] now that we are leaving” the EU. A quarter said Brexit has had a negative impact on children’s motivation to take up languages.

The implications of Brexit are making high-quality language teaching more difficult, reported 45% of state schools. Reasons included a lack of funding, “more government red tape” and struggles to recruit specialist languages teachers. All will be made worse if we actually leave the EU.

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One third of schools have no language teachers with a language qualification higher than a GCSE. Reversing this “real concern” will be tough as Brexit puts native speakers off coming to the UK – facing a weak currency, doubts over recognition of their qualifications, and a general sense of being unwelcome. UK-born languages graduates might also start seeking jobs abroad as the economy flounders.

It is clear that Brexit is contributing to a generation of school children having fewer opportunities than their predecessors – for example, participation in international activities such as school trips is also in decline. And having a foreign language under your belt, of course, opens all sorts of career opportunities later in life.

It is also worth noting that these downward trends – although seen across the board – are more acute in state schools than independent schools. The socio-economic divisions exposed by the EU referendum are being made worse by the experience of Brexit.

We are better off staying in the EU and fixing our country, rather than fixating on Brexit. One obvious example is the Erasmus+ programme which helps fund learning experiences across the 28 EU countries and is increasingly focusing on reaching beyond universities and to disadvantaged children. Schools sang the scheme’s praises in the British Council survey, but Brexit leaves our future participation in doubt – especially if we crash out with no deal.

Brexit is a betrayal of the next generation. Far from helping young Britons embrace international opportunities, it is diminishing their prospects in an increasingly globalised world. It’s not too late to turn the tide. Join us on July 20 to say “No to Boris, yes to Europe”.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “‘Global Britain’ turns inwards as fewer kids learn languages”

  • An important article. I think the cultural isolation caused by Brexit is even more damaging than the economic consequences. Obviously we have seen a drop in the learning of languages for several years, but its also obvious that if barriers are being put up to trading and having other dealings with Europe, at all kinds of levels, there will be less incentive to speak other languages. That’s why it always irritates me when Brexiteers glibly state, ‘but we’re not leaving Europe’.
    I think the key to a greater appreciation of the EU, is not of the EU institutions themselves. (Showing enthusiasm for bureaucratic institutions is asking alot). It comes from an understanding and appreciation of European cultures, and key to that, is understanding their native languages.

  • Of course, both the article and Alex Wilson’s comments are absolutely right. Johnson’s claim ” we are leaving the EU but not Europe ” is demonstrably false. One has only to observe the behavior of Farage’s army at the opening session of the new European Parliament; and what is the difference between Farage’s Brexit and the Brexit defended by Johnson and Hunt in their desperate and pathetic attempt to become the next PM? Have these people no idea how insulting they are being to our European partners ?

    How has British politics reached this desperately low level ? Is it all the demons unleashed by the Brexit fantasy ?

  • Well, Farage and his ilk predictably didn’t forego yet another chance to make the UK, as still is, look like a bunch of morons on a Saturday evening bender. Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish no doubt groaning with disgust. I’m looking forward to the comments when back with my friends and family across the North Sea soon. Anyway, the present developments between the UK and the EU no doubt put another couple of years to the process of repair once the UK, or England, found its common sense back somewhere in a box in the loft and attempts to repair the damage are going underway. Meanwhile, where were Johnson and Hunt during the mooning show in Brussels? If they are anywhere near serious about an attempt to get a “better deal” through, Farage’s joke must have been irritating to watch, as it did nothing whatever to improve the feeble chance for success they have.

  • I really must take issue with Alex Wilson’s naive comments.
    He writes as if the drop in the number of students in Britain learning foreign languages for several years is wholly attributable to Brexit. This is quite simply not true. There has been a significant slide in the numbers of students sitting A levels in modern foreign languages since Tony Bliar came to power in 1997, i.e. nearly 20 years prior to Brexit. The figures for French German and Spanish then were 20,000, 9,000 and 4,000 respectively. Now they are about 9,000, 4,000 and 4,300 respectively. To put this into European context, each year about 200,000 young Germans study English as a minor component of the Abitur (A levels) and 100,0000 study English as a major component of the Abitur. Increasingly I am coming into contact with young eastern Europeans who not only speak German fluently in addition to their mother tongue, but English too. Any further slide in the number of students studying foreign languages since Brexit is negligible in the overall scheme of things, and simply an extension of prior developments.
    When Alex Wilson writes that Brexit will put up barriers to trading he is being disingenuous, since the EU is known as bastion of protectionism. The average tariff levied on imported goods throughout the world under WTO is just 3% . If an exporter is unable to cover this additional expense, then his profit margins are too narrow and he should not be in business. This is to completely ignore cultural non-tariff barriers. Aldi and Lidl have made great inroads to the retail food sector in GB. Conversely, M&S opened up a store in Wuppertal but has to close it since Germans refused to purchase British goods, even though the price /quality ratio of M&S goods is unbeatable, and I heard that from an Italian gentleman.
    I note that David Quinn ignores the rising anti EU sentiment in Europe. How very convenient! He has probably never heard of measures Germany has taken to make it more difficult for Australians to obtain visas for vising the UK too.
    I could go on and on with examples of German protectionism, but won’t.

  • @Martyn Edwards
    If you bother to read what I stated, I acknowledged that the decline in language teaching here goes back several years i.e before the Referendum. But, I cannot see how leaving the EU will do anything but reinforce that trend. Brexit means barriers going up between the UK and the rest of Europe. That translates into less contacts, less dealings with one another in all kinds of ways, not just through trade.
    If Aldi and Lidl have been able to break into the UK market, and M&S have struggled in Germany, that says more about the Germans better grasp of language and cultural differences/similarities.
    However, speaking languages is more than just about gaining commercial advantage. Its about Britain playing its full role in Europe and extending cultural understanding between our nations, which ultimately is in all our interests.