Is Brexit killing multilingualism in the UK?

July 25, 2018
Is Brexit killing multilingualism in the UK?

When the British public were given the opportunity to vote to leave the European Union or remain within it, the referendum triggered a massive division of opinion within the country, within political parties, within groups of friends and even within families. The ramifications of the subsequent decision to leave the EU are wide-reaching and ongoing, affecting everything from the value of sterling to property prices to the cost of goods in UK supermarkets. 

While such effects were hardly unexpected, there have also been some more surprising and more intangible changes to UK society as a result of the Brexit vote. One of those is the impact that the decision has had on the country’s attitude to multilingualism. 

The rise of ‘linguaphobia’ 

Three quarters of the UK’s 65 million residents speak only English. Many believe that English is so widely spoken around the world that they have no need to learn a foreign language. The languages they learnt in school have in most cases been long since forgotten. However, only 6% of the world’s population speak English natively, and the language is far from being a lingua franca. 

Now, a panel of well-respected linguists and academics has warned that Britons are becoming increasingly ‘linguaphobic’ following the referendum. Speaking at the Hay Literary Festival – one of the country’s most popular and important literary events – linguist Teresa Tinsley and Cardiff University professor Claire Gorrara were among those issuing the stark warning. 

Gorrara warned that Britons would need to develop their linguistic skills in order to develop international business relationships after the UK’s departure from the EU, commenting:

“That English is somehow the norm is a complete misapprehension of the facts, but this notion that everyone is speaking English is persistent and believed by many in the UK.”

Tinsley added:

“I don’t know if it has to do with the general sense of isolationism or anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner feeling, or perhaps a mistaken idea of what’s going to happen when we leave the European Union, that we won’t need to speak other languages anymore.”

Foreign language speakers in the UK

At present, some 23% of British citizens speak French as a foreign language, followed by 9% who speak German and 8% who speak Spanish. The prevalence of French as the main second language is as a result of its previous inclusion in the country’s national curriculum for students up to the age of 16. However, a rule change in 2004 meant that children were no longer required to learn a foreign language past the age of 14. Naturally, this has done little to foster a culture that encourages multilingualism in the UK. Since then, the number of pupils sitting language GCSEs has halved, to well below 50%. This has had a knock-on effect on university studies, with applications to study modern foreign languages down by 57% over the past ten years. 

Financial impact

According to the British Council, the main languages that UK citizens will need to speak in order to engage with the business world “for prosperity and influence” after Brexit are Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German.

However, uptake of foreign languages is so poor in the UK that deficient language skills already cost the country 3.5% of its GDP, based on 2014 figures from Cardiff Business School. 

With Brexit hardening the peculiarly British attitude to learning (or rather, not learning) languages, one can only imagine that the impact on GDP will become more pronounced over the years ahead. Still, at least those providing translation services for UK businesses should be able to get something positive out of the situation! 

Final thoughts

What do you think the UK should be doing to promote language learning? And what can parents do to foster a love of languages when the government has laid the foundations for lower language uptake? Use the comments section to share your thoughts. 



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