Thriving in post-Brexit Britain: the importance of languages

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Katrin Kohl

The clock is now ticking as we move towards withdrawal from the EU. In a Green Paper entitled Building our Industrial Strategy, the Government assures us that this will create a country that is ‘more outward-looking than ever before’. But the signs are pointing the other way.

The Green Paper’s section on export, which starts off with the vision of building ‘a great, global trading nation that reaches out to old friends and new allies alike’, does not offer much substance when it comes to concrete strategies for addressing the UK’s chronically weak export performance. While exports as a share of GDP have only doubled in the UK since 1970, they have trebled in France and the United States, and grown four-fold in Germany. The way forward set out in the paper includes throwing off the shackles of traditional European ties: ‘departure from the European Union is not the country stepping back from the world, but an example of how a free, flexible, ambitious country can step up to a new global role in which the UK can trade freely with others.’

Since the UK’s entry to the Single Market in 1992, advocates of investment in Modern Foreign Languages have argued that to grow their export performance, businesses need competence in foreign languages, and the cultural understanding that comes with language learning. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages put the figure of lost international sales at £48 billion a year. That strong language skills are likely to boost export performance is suggested by Germany’s approach: young people learn English from an early age and continue with it even if they go on to vocational training, and internationally active German companies prefer applicants to offer a third language as well.

The Green Paper offers a welcome emphasis on ‘Developing Skills’ among young people across the educational spectrum, and these extend to literacy. Otherwise, however, the skills are restricted to STEM subjects. Foreign languages make no appearance, and it seems likely that Britain’s global role is assumed to be restricted to the medium of English.

Government support for Modern Foreign Languages has long been patchy, and characterised by under-investment. Abolition of a compulsory language GCSE in 2004 significantly weakened the subject, and more recent initiatives to strengthen it have so far failed to reverse the decline: the inclusion of a language in the EBacc and the introduction of compulsory language teaching in primary schools (albeit only one lesson a week). It currently seems unlikely that the revised GCSE and A Level qualifications from examination in 2018 will bring an improvement in take-up or progression. Moreover, these measures cannot bear fruit if they are undermined by other developments.

Increasing financial pressures are making it harder for schools to make adequate provision for languages, and the number of children, especially in rural areas, who have no access to Modern Foreign Languages is growing. Brexit will further weaken the subject by making it even more difficult to recruit teachers, since recruitment from EU countries will become harder.

One of the chief casualties of Brexit will be foreign exchanges. These are already fast becoming the victim of red tape, safeguarding concerns and cost, especially in the state sector, as was highlighted in the course of a Westminster Forum seminar reported in the TES. In 2014, a British Council survey found that only 30 percent of maintained schools were running host-family exchanges. The proportion will diminish further as travel to the EU becomes bureaucratically more burdensome and more costly.

If young people are to grow up outward-looking, they must be given the opportunity to leave their country and gain the mind-opening perspectives offered by foreign travel. Flourishing trade needs cultural imagination as much as it needs technical skills, and it needs the ability to communicate effectively across cultural groups as much as it needs basic literacy.

Children from advantaged backgrounds and fee-paying schools will undoubtedly continue to have early opportunities to travel and gain the global experience that international companies require. If the Government is truly committed to building a ‘stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’, it will need to be proactive about putting the educational opportunities in place to make that happen.

Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford. She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads Strand 1: Metaphor.

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