Learning a second language still matters

Speaking a foreign language remains vitally important in the Brexit era, says Wendy Ayres-Bennett

December 10, 2016
Three women singing from same hymn sheet
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The Brexit vote sent shock waves through the UK’s modern languages community.

Already shaken by the closure of modern languages departments at the universities of Ulster and Northumbria, a continuing downward trend in undergraduate enrolments, and the loss of Higher Education Funding Council for England funding for the Routes Into Languages programme, the vote seemed to many to be symptomatic of a lack of understanding of the value of languages both nationally and internationally.

Part of the problem derives from the widespread misconception that speaking English is enough and that monolingualism is the norm.

In fact, more than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language on a daily basis, and in the UK nearly one in five primary school pupils has a first language other than English.

When you speak a global language such as English, the immediate benefits of learning another language seem less obvious.

The instrumental arguments in favour of language learning have largely failed. Children learning French soon realise that they don’t need to know French to be able to order an ice cream in Paris, and employers have often preferred to recruit native speakers of the language they need rather than modern languages graduates, who may not always sell the additional skills that language learning brings.

The UK's All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages recently put out a call for government to prioritise language learning during Brexit, including full participation in Erasmus+ programmes, which allow students to develop not just linguistic skills but also intercultural agility, and a plan to ensure the UK produces sufficient linguists.

There are huge benefits from being able to step outside a single language, culture and mode of thought and see the world through other people’s eyes. We know from research carried out by the British Academy’s Born Global project that it is the combination of language and intercultural skills that makes linguists attractive as employees.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is also funding four major, multi-institutional and multidisciplinary research programmes under the Open World Research Initiative to demonstrate the strategic importance of language-led research.

The Cambridge-led AHRC project, Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS), seeks to demonstrate the value of languages to both societies and individuals, while also considering some of the obstacles and challenges presented by multilingualism.

A promising area for giving new impetus to modern languages comes from work on the cognitive benefits of language learning. One of our team, Thomas Bak at the University of Edinburgh, has already found important results both for healthy ageing and dementia sufferers. In 2014 Bak looked at a sample of 850 people born in 1936, and was able to show that those who had learned a second language in later childhood or adulthood performed better than would be predicted by the results of their IQ test at age 11.

Even more exciting, perhaps, is the work on dementia. Building on work conducted in Toronto, Bak has found that bilingual patients develop dementia four to five years later than monolinguals. At a time when the UK population is ageing and there are real concerns about the funding of the care of the elderly, this finding is also important to society.

For languages to thrive, we need better understanding of their importance to key areas of public life, including foreign policy, diplomacy, security, peace-building and the promotion of better social cohesion. Researchers have to demonstrate the benefits of language learning for cultural awareness, national and international relations, social cohesion and conflict resolution, as well as for health and well-being.

Wendy Ayres-Bennett is professor of French philology and linguistics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Philological Society. She is currently leading a four-year £3.2 million Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on the impact of multilingualism.

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