Hearing a German politician speaking beautiful English in a radio interview last week, my 13-year-old son remembered that during a trip to Berlin last year how so many Germans spoke to him in excellent English whenever his nascent German skills let him down. “I can’t imagine the same thing happening to a German who comes to England,” he said.
Indeed. And it could get even worse. The latest A-level figures show a dramatic drop in the number of teenagers taking modern languages. This summer less than 8,000 pupils took French at A-level – eight percent less than last year – and German has fallen by 16 percent to 2,890. Take-up of German has halved in the past decade. Last year only 47 percent of secondary school pupils sat a modern languages GCSE, compared to 76 percent in 2002. Take out those who take the exam in their native languages, and it’s actually worse. The number of schools and universities offering a full set of options is diminishing. The numbers have been falling for years, especially since the government of the day declared back in 2004 that languages were no longer compulsory for under 16s – an incredible misjudgement, in my opinion. Even Michael Gove including a language in his controversial English Baccalaureate only slightly stemmed the flow of children deserting this demanding yet incredibly rewarding field of study.
The difference today is that newspapers and studies are quoting children who say there is no need to study languages after Brexit. Let’s for a moment ignore the depressing assumption that after Brexit we won’t be speaking to any foreigners because we have turned our backs on “Abroad”, and instead let’s challenge the premise that post-Brexit Britain might not need linguists for business.
Au contraire, as even Del Boy knew how to say (millennials, look it up). The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages (yes, amazingly, there is such a thing) is all a dither because nobody seems to realise that the opposite is the case. Britons’ famous aversion to language learning has been compensated for over past decades by the presence of multilingual EU citizens coming to London and doing the communication for us. If they go, the gap will be wider.
Here is Baroness Coussins, Co-Chair of the APPG: “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. The Government have a double challenge: they must safeguard crucial current access to language skills and international experience, such as participation in the Erasmus+ programme, and also kick-start a national plan to ensure the UK produces the linguists we need to become a world leader in global free trade and on the international stage.”
Leading Leavers often complain that Britain wasn’t really influential in Brussels as it was really a cabal run by snooty Continentals. While we can dispute that in many ways, there is one element that might have some truth – given the requirement that applicants to many European institutions speak two foreign languages, many Brits are already disqualified and it no doubt explains why we were disproportionately underrepresented. In many cases, we simply weren’t in the room as our lack of languages kept us from the door.
And don’t think there won’t be a need because all foreigners – here and abroad – will speak English anyway. German politicians may be polished enough for radio interviews, but workers at small foreign businesses, for instance, are not so adept. For an article I wrote for The Times some years ago (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/britons-abandon-language-study-6f3swm6bldl), I spoke to people whose companies had lost money because neither they nor the business that owed them could speak to each other properly. Businesses, the secret services, diplomacy, academia, science, sport, the arts – they all rely on international communication and have struggled for a while to recruit linguistically adept young people. It’s depressing to see that this is getting worse, especially if it’s because of yet another Brexit delusion.