A ‘critical juncture’ for language learning in the UK

Specialist expertise in languages and cultures should be given strategic protection within universities, says Alice Campbell-Cree

November 14, 2017
Language learning with dictionaries
Source: iStock

If the UK is to succeed post-Brexit, international awareness and skills – particularly the ability to connect with people globally beyond English – will be more vital than ever.

report released by the British Council today – of which I am the editor – shows that few languages matter more to the nation’s future than Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German.

Based on analysis of economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors, Languages for the Future highlights these five languages as the ones the UK will need most in the coming years – not least for trade and business but also for diplomacy and for our influence in the world.

The report argues that, in a new era of cooperation with Europe and with the rest of the world, investment in and prioritisation of the UK’s ability to understand and engage with people internationally is critical.

The UK’s current languages deficit

Recent research has shown that only a third of Britons can hold a basic conversation in another language besides their mother tongue. Language learning in schools is currently facing a difficult climate; and low uptake of languages at school means a smaller pool of students to take higher-level qualifications.

While French, Spanish and German are still widely available as degree courses in universities throughout the UK, there has been some shrinkage recently. In fact, there is continuing concern about the low level of enrolment in language degree courses generally, as well as cuts and threatened closures of university language departments.

One silver lining is that Chinese studies, in contrast, has become more widely available, although it is difficult to find reliable data on how many students are catered for, or the level of linguistic competence achieved at the end of the course.

International educational cooperation

The report considered the UK’s international cooperation in education as one factor in determining which languages will be most important. However there are some major unanswered questions around the conditions and available mechanisms for cooperation and exchange in higher education in future.

For example, will the UK continue to participate in programmes such as Erasmus+ or Horizon 2020? What will be the future status of non-British EU nationals in UK universities, whether as staff or students?

It seems likely that partnership with European countries, particularly France and Germany, will remain important following the UK’s departure from the EU and that the development of new global partnerships will be gradual. While the UK should take every opportunity to be truly global in its outlook, the continuing importance of European languages should not be underestimated.

The benefits of study abroad schemes like Erasmus+ have long been recognised for their merits in allowing young people to broaden their horizons and to gain vital skills – including languages – by studying or working abroad. To lose participation in such schemes would be a huge loss to a generation that values such opportunities – and the international experience that they bring.

What can be done?

The report says that we have reached a "critical juncture" for language learning in the UK and that now is the moment to initiate a bold new policy to improve the situation. 

On higher education specifically, the report asks education providers to consider the country’s future need for international capacity post-Brexit, and stresses that specialist expertise in languages and cultures in our university sector should be given strategic protection.

More widely, it encourages further and higher education providers to develop, and incentivise take-up of, the offer of languages as additional modules or integrated units within vocational and degree courses.

Finally, it recommends that government negotiators protect and prioritise education exchange programmes in EU exit negotiations and guarantee their continuation whether within Erasmus+ or through an alternative mechanism. 

Together, this may seem like a lot to ask, but the reality is there is a lot to lose if we do not do what we can to protect and enhance language learning in the UK – and quickly.

Alice Campbell-Cree is a policy analyst at the British Council and editor of the Languages for the Future report.

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