Brexit ‘hitting foreign languages in schools’

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The flags which make up the European Union against a blue sky

By Dr Adam Cooke, Lecturer in Languages Education
School of Education, University of Birmingham

I am sure, at some point, that many of us in the UK language teaching community has had to defend the place of language learning in our schools. Thankfully we have always been mightily equipped to justify modern foreign languages in the curriculum.

As a discipline, MFL can be cognitively transformative and enable students to develop vital skills:

  • To develop an awareness of other cultures;
  • To challenge stereotypes;
  • To reinforce literacy in the first language;
  • To develop confidence.

Most importantly, when taught well, modern foreign languages provide young people with a powerful learning experience, opening the door to communicating with millions of other people in the world.

Until recently, the argument supporting languages in the curriculum was deeply enriched by our membership of the European Union, which has provided millions of us with the opportunity to live and work abroad without constraint. Learning a European language has further facilitated access to the great opportunities that lay à travers la Manche! For years, we have been able to travel within 27 different countries and access their education systems, their health services, their welfare provision and their job markets – all largely unhindered.

However, our young people face tremendous uncertainty as to whether they will be able to enjoy such opportunities should the United Kingdom leave the European Union. I wonder, however, how many of them are aware of this and indeed are aware of what the European Union has done for them.

I finished my last blog by suggesting that our ‘withdrawal from the European Union would deal a deathly blow to any rationale for students learning European languages in our schools’. I was not surprised therefore to read in a recent report by the British Council, covered by the BBC and the Guardian, that secondary school pupils are questioning the value of modern foreign languages given Britain’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union. The report identifies how parents have been a source of influence in fuelling doubts about the value of foreign language education in a country outside the EU. These parents who, like others, may have been exposed to the racist imbibed, unsubstantiated rhetoric from some leave supporting elected members.

Now is not only the time to present a coherent argument for the learning of languages, but for all schools to present an unbiased rationale for our continued membership of the European Union. The spectre of Brexit is, however, not the only contributing factor in damaging the status of language learning in this country. The British Council report also covers yet again the impact of unfairly challenging national assessment at GCSE and A-Level, especially when compared with other subjects. They suggest, at last, that the introduction of norm referencing of examinations since 2010 has reinforced the challenges further. The report also alludes to the continued language teacher recruitment crisis.

It is from the other member nations of the European Union that the UK recruits a considerable number of trainee language teachers. UK born linguists on the programme have been able to develop their linguistic skills in continental Europe because of the tremendous opportunities afforded us by the membership of the EU.

In light of this, the potential outcomes of Brexit, including the restricted movement of EU nationals, will undoubtedly hit languages hard.


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