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Global Britain’s language barrier

Prime minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a school PA Wire/PA Images

The scandal of modern language education in the UK is going to cost the country dear

Universities have been in the headlines, quite rightly, as students and their parents worry about being charged full tuition fees for nearly a year of online learning, while paid-for rental accommodation sits empty after tenants were told by the government to stay away from campus.

However, the reality of higher education is that demand for degree places usually increases during a recession because of the lack of alternatives available to school leavers. Despite fears of mass deferrals during the pandemic, figures released by UCAS recently show that an extra 30,000 students went to university this year compared with last.

In fact, the numbers of students enrolling on full-time degree courses have been steadily growing in the last decade. There is one notable exception to this, though.

Acceptances onto modern language degrees have decreased by 36% in the last ten years – from 6,005 in 2011 to 3,830 in 2020. That includes a 13% drop last year, alongside a similar decline in those sitting language A-Levels over the same time.

Some in government might welcome this news as part of an explicit attempt to wean students away from the humanities and into STEM subjects. But they should be very worried indeed.

If the plan – at least in theory – is for Global Britain to pitch headfirst into an export-led economic future, then this cannot be done while simultaneously eviscerating the nation’s capacity to teach and learn languages.

Modern language departments in universities are shrinking, language learning in schools is evaporating, and modern language teachers are leaving the country in droves, while at the same time often paper-thin international trade deals are being heralded as the new dawn of a nation of exporters.

Back in July 2014, supported by HSBC, UBS, and the British Chambers of Commerce, the all-parliamentary group on modern languages called for “a national recovery programme” to tackle the parlous state of the nation’s linguistic skills base.

Baroness Coussins, chair of the APPG at the time, said the country, “will need to take clear, urgent and coherent action to upgrade the UK’s foreign language skills. The UK economy is already losing around £50 billion a year in lost contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce. And we aren’t just talking about highflyers: in 2011 over 27% of admin and clerical jobs went unfilled because of the languages deficit.”

Languages skills are an economic necessity. The project of Global Britain will be dead in the water before it has even started unless the county’s linguistic capacity is addressed as a matter of urgency.

As Adam Marshall, executive director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, put it: “For too long the UK has had a poor reputation for linguistic ability. To nurture the next generation of exporters, more young people need to learn a broader range of languages and start learning languages from an earlier age. Action… would help equip businesses with the skills to reach new markets around the world.”

A third of state schools in England allow pupils to opt-out of languages by the age of 14, according to a 2018 British Council survey. But the rot set in between 2003 and 2010 when numbers taking GCSE halved after the Labour government removed the requirement for 16-years-olds to take an exam in a modern foreign language. According to a European Commission survey, the UK trailed a dismal last in a ranking of EU member states for the ability of 15- to 30-year-olds to speak and write in two or more languages. Denmark came top with 99%, the UK could only manage 32%. Second last was Hungary with 71%.

Last July, the British Academy, British Council, Universities UK and the Association of School and College Leaders published the report, Towards a National Languages Strategy: Education and Skills, arguing that language acquisition was vital to economic recovery after the pandemic. Vivienne Sterne, director of UUK International, said at the time: “If the UK government is serious about their ambitions for a Global Britain, we must upskill our graduates with the linguistic and cultural understanding to shape an outward-looking post-Covid and post-Brexit UK”.

There will be some who mutter that the sort of modern languages needed for Global Britain are not the sort taught in our schools and universities.

That might be true to an extent, the UK might not need as many speakers of German as it did during the Cold War, but the point is that students become interested in learning languages through their experience of languages at school and develop the capacity to master multiple languages through training in the acquisition of the languages of near neighbours.

If you have healthy numbers of school children learning French, German, Spanish and Italian – and visiting these countries – you will have healthy numbers of university students learning Cantonese, Arabic, Urdu, Portuguese and Russian. Without that flow-through of linguistic capacity, Global Britain’s ambitions for an export economy will fade and die at the Kent border.

An inability to speak the same language as your trade partner is just as much a non-tariff barrier to commerce as the red-tape strangling businesses after Brexit. Shouting slowly in English at nonplussed foreigners or fumbling for Google Translate is not an economic strategy.

Rather than being front and centre of plans for the economy – not to mention national security – attitudes to language learning in the UK are seemingly in reverse. Whether in government or in schools, learning another language is often treated as something to be embarrassed about.
It was not always the case, Tony Blair addressed the French National Assembly in its native tongue in 2011. The current incumbent of Number 10 also speaks pretty decent French.

In 2013, when mayor of London, Boris Johnson gave an interview in French to the 8 o’clock news on France 2, in which he said that if there were to be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU he would vote to remain. Perhaps, as they say in Paris of the mendacious, he was, raconter des salads, literally ‘telling salads’.

Foreseeing that trade with its near neighbour might be about to become sticky, the Irish government launched a national strategy for foreign language acquisition in 2017, encouraging extra time for languages in schools and diversifying the languages taught. Launching the strategy, the responsible minister Richard Burton said: “Brexit and the increasing importance of non-English speaking countries globally, mean that English-speaking countries such as our own, will need to put a new found importance on foreign languages in order to excel in the modern world.”

In sharp contrast the UK government seems intensely relaxed about the collapse of language teaching in its increasingly monoglot schools and universities. However, the evidence suggests that degrading languages makes us poorer, in every sense.

The government is keen to appoint champions for this, that and the other. Right now, we desperately need a languages czar – there must be a spouse of a Tory MP, or even their pub landlord, willing to take it on.

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