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'Brexit means we can't ignore the decline of MFL'

The fall of modern languages risks leaving our pupils incapable of flourishing as global citizens, warns one headteacher

MFL, Foreign Languages, Brexit, primary, secondary, English, French, Germany

The fall of modern languages risks leaving our pupils incapable of flourishing as global citizens, warns one headteacher

A skill deficit that costs the UK economy an estimated 3.5 per cent of GDP.

A knowledge vacuum that 74 per cent of business leaders identify as a major barrier to career success for graduates in today’s world of work.

You may assume that I am talking about science, technology, engineering or maths – subjects which occupy so many headlines, especially where opportunities for girls and young women are concerned.

But, no.

These stats relate to foreign languages, an area that rarely attracts comment and stands pretty low on the national educational agenda at the moment.

And yet, Britain is in danger of sleepwalking into an employability crisis, as many educators continue to turn a deaf ear to the research and the warning signs highlighting a comparative skills gap for our graduates that will materially harm their employment prospects in the coming years. We are in danger of nurturing a generation of global consumers who are incapable of flourishing as global citizens, earners and opinion-formers.

The figures are eloquent – and concerning.

Only a third of Britons report that they are able to hold a conversation in another language. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools found that a mere 34 per cent of pupils obtained a good GCSE in a foreign language, and less than five per cent did so in more than one language.  As language learning in schools and universities continues to shrink – with French and German A level declining by 17 per cent and 12 per cent respectively in the past six years, for example – it looks unlikely that the situation will improve for the next generation.

The risk of knowing only English

Many people seem to be assuming that the problem will decline after Brexit. After all, they say, many of our trading partners are Anglophone and English is the lingua franca of the global economy.  

This overlooks the reality that post-Brexit Britain will inevitably turn more outwards towards non-European markets and, hence, into more difficult territories for business in countries such as Russia and China, where the linguistic scales are even more drastically balanced against monolingual Britons than in European countries.

Professor Joseph Lo Bianco, of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Language and Literacy Education, puts it in a nutshell: “There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English.”

We must not rely on the fact of the first (a reality which many, many young people in non-Anglophone countries are working hard to address) to ignore the truth of the second. Nor does this mean radically reorienting language-learning in the UK away from European languages towards Russian or Mandarin, say; a suggestion which may well leave policy-makers in education and headteachers shrugging their shoulders in impotent despair.

Language-learning is about more than mastering a single language. It is about mastering the skills for language acquisition, which can be transferred to other languages in the future. It’s no surprise, then, that French, German and Spanish remain in the top five languages recommended by the British Council as threshold languages for study.

It is also, and crucially, about developing the cultural awareness that opens the way for a more sophisticated understanding of other ways of doing things. This, in itself, is a vital transferable skill, which is indispensable in international business negotiations. It should be part of the armoury of any ambitious professional leaving education today.

With 39 per cent of employers surveyed in 2017 expressing dissatisfaction with the global cultural awareness of UK graduates (up by 9 per cent in just one year), the imperative facing responsible school leaders is clear. Making the study of a foreign language to GCSE level as part of the core curriculum should be an absolute minimum and internationalism must be a golden thread woven through school life.

Whatever Brexit brings, we know that the future for our students is unlikely to be defined by the lines of national borders. That is why igniting the fires of interest in language-learning and internationalism at school is as important as stoking the flames of Stem.

Dr Helen Stringer is the head at Northampton High School GDST

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