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Alfred Davies looks at the issues that Brexit could cause for aspiring linguists.

Brexit is looming. We are at risk of being even further isolated from our European neighbours, and even closer aligned with Donald Trump and the U.S. The frightening socio-political implications of this shift have been much discussed and debated, yet, as a linguist, there is an added dimension to all this. I’m lucky enough to have been assured that my Erasmus+ grant will still be there next year, allowing me the financial security to spend my third year of university studies abroad, in order to improve and practice my language skills.

A rarely-mentioned but wonderful advantage of membership of the European Union, students can study or work abroad with EU funding. However, young people, keen to experience Europe, and, often, learn a language, may not have this opportunity in the years to come. A post-Brexit UK is looking increasingly bleak, and languages look set to become one of its first victims. A political and cultural isolation from Europe will be a linguistic isolation too, no doubt, and the implications of such an isolation are both terrifying and far-reaching.

We, in the UK, are notoriously bad at learning languages. In fact, a recent study by language-learning app Memrise has shown us to be the laziest in Europe in this respect. In a nation where there simply isn’t a culture of learning languages, and where we tend to start learning later and later, young people will continue to turn their backs on a skill that can open countless paths of opportunity, with a long-term decline in the number of young people studying languages for GCSE and A Level. Indeed, a document ‘Brexit and Languages’, released in October of last year by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages demonstrated that our reluctance to learn languages already costs us 3.5% of GDP- and that’s while we can still rely on the European Union to negotiate our trade deals.

‘The uncertainty following Brexit extends to the Erasmus+ scheme’

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the future looks bleak for a linguistically-ignorant nation that can no longer rely on the EU for trade agreements. Baroness Coussins, Co-Chair of the aforementioned APPG explains: “Brexit must make the UK’s language skills a top policy issue. Language skills are vital for our exports, education, public services and diplomacy and we will not be able to carry on relying on other EU nationals to plug the gap.”

With the impetus on us to find new trade partners and negotiate, language will come to the fore. English may often be considered the lingua franca of international relations and diplomacy, and Brexit will not change this, however what is key to understand is that language is about far more than mere communication. Language is about understanding. In order to have truly strong diplomatic ties, we have to be able to understand the reason people see things in a certain way, the reason people take a certain stance in certain situations. Languages and culture are intrinsically related, and until the UK realises this, it cannot expect to play as key a role on the international stage as its leaders demand.

Undoubtedly, the education system in the UK does very little to aid in encouraging young people to take up languages. Schools have, by and large, become factories for producing as many A*-C grades as possible, with very little concern for the intricacies of the study of certain subjects. Language learning is an art that requires time and patience. It simply doesn’t fit with the way we are expected to learn today. Rushing through a textbook, learning vocabulary and grammar in a near-mathematical manner in order to achieve the best grade possible in the shortest possible amount of time, simply doesn’t work with languages. As long as we follow this path of teaching, we cannot expect the numbers of young people studying languages to increase.

Language learning does not merely take time, however, but also opportunities, which may be very hard to come by in a post-Brexit Britain. The lack of linguists in the UK means that we rely heavily on the work of EU nationals as teachers in schools and universities. Many of the inspiring languages teachers I’ve had as a student have been EU nationals. If the right of these teachers to remain in the UK is not secured, we risk losing brilliant teachers of all subjects, and for languages this will prove pivotal.

‘Our reluctance to learn languages already costs us 3.5 per cent of GDP’

Dr Ian Foster, Director of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Bristol, notes that many of these teachers “currently feel themselves to be in limbo, while the Government and the EU debate their future status. The surrounding insecurity is bound to have an impact on morale’, which Dr Foster fears may have “a long-term effect on the quality and calibre of teaching”. Whatever the result of the ongoing debate on the status of EU nationals residing in the UK, much of the damage has already been done, with many language teachers bearing the brunt of the political turmoil.

As alluded to previously, the uncertainty following Brexit extends to the Erasmus+ scheme, which since 1986 has provided grants to students wishing to study or work in the EU. This scheme is run by an EU body, the Directorate General for Education and Culture, however membership to the scheme is not exclusive to the EU, and therefore could, in an ideal world, still be open to students following an eventual Brexit. Yet, if such ideal circumstances do not arise, the consequences for language learning in the UK would be disastrous.

At Bristol, 75% of those who participate in the Erasmus+ scheme are from the School of Modern Languages. If this scheme is no longer available, studying or working abroad to learn a foreign language may simply be no longer be a viable option for some students, as Dr Foster points out: ‘The loss of these grants could well have a deterrent effect on students from poorer households, who are already under-presented in our subject area’. The cost of university is already acting as a deterrent for many young people in the UK, and Brexit is seem to be set to only worsen this situation, particularly for a subject that is less representative of society than most.

‘Brexit is likely to cause a further rise in disillusionment with further education’

The concerns of languages students and teachers are symptomatic of many of the issues surrounding a hypocritical ‘Leave’ campaign filled with incoherencies. We wish to leave the European Union in order to trade with the world, yet we are doing little in the way of reversing the worrying trend of a declining number of young people taking up languages, despite the fact that linguists will be key to a future outside of the EU. In fact, we can only expect the contrary, with languages degrees becoming less accessible than ever. The lack of a plan for Brexit couldn’t be more evident for languages students and teachers alike, and, if as the Government states, we wish to trade with the world, we must find solutions not only for the potentially damaging effects of Brexit, but also for the more general declining interest in language learning we have seen over many years. But everyone speaks English anyway, right?


Has your course been jeopardized by Brexit? Let us know in the comments or via social media links below. 

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