Why Brexit mustn't mean turning our back on languages

Brexit Party MEPs have embarrassed us with their rudeness. But they're also reflecting a wilful contempt towards the global community, says Geoff Barton

languages

This was the week when the Ode to Joy felt more like the Ode to Shame.

I imagine I’m not the only one who watched with embarrassed disbelief as some newly elected MEPs stood up in the European Parliament and turned their backs on a small ensemble of musicians performing Beethoven’s most inspiring song.

It frankly wouldn’t be accurate to describe the conduct of the Brexit Party as childish. We see better behaviour from children across our schools. Such wilful rudeness towards invited guests in school assembly would be unthinkable.

But in our national public life, it seems, too often a sense of propriety, of calm authority, of adults setting a tone of dignified leadership has withered shamefully away.

Sense of gloom

And there was a depressing parallel this week between those MEPs turning their backs on the EU anthem and a report which found that some parents and pupils see little point in learning a language now that we are leaving the EU.

The findings of the British Council’s report on language learning reinforced the sense of gloom.

Respondents to its survey of primary and secondary schools said that Brexit has “cast a pall over languages”.

One said: “We have had parents mention that they do not believe their son/daughter should be studying a language as it is little to no use to them now that we are leaving the European Union.”

Twenty-five per cent of respondents said Brexit had negatively impacted on pupils’ attitudes towards language learning. 

“In their mind, Brexit invalidates the need for language learning,” said one respondent.

Self-inflicted injuries

What is clear from all this is that language learning faces yet another huge challenge as a result of Brexit, on top of all the other huge challenges it already faces and that are detailed in the British Council report.

I have written about this subject before in Tes, so I won’t go through it all again, other than to make two points.

The first is the extent to which government policies have resulted in self-inflicted injuries to language learning. 

The British Council report found major concerns over the increased difficulty of new GCSEs and A levels and how this deters students from opting for languages – a problem that comes on top of the perception that these subjects were already severely graded.

One respondent said: “Government policy of successive governments has been a disgrace – it’s as if someone wants to deliberately do away with languages in the state sector. There is nothing for lower ability or SEN children – the GCSE is totally inappropriate. Until the issues of severe grading are dealt with, things won’t change. The GCSE exams need to be made accessible and not be some ridiculously off-putting experience.”

Devastating effect

In post-16 education, the decoupling of A levels from AS levels has also had a devastating effect, with the report concluding: “The move away from AS to three A levels has been detrimental to take-up for languages, with German often being squeezed out altogether.”

And then there is, of course, the issue of funding, which crops up on several occasions, but is perhaps best summed up by this comment from one respondent: “Funding is a huge issue for the school, which impacts on all aspects of MFL teaching – and most other foundation subjects. We do our best with resources available but need any extra cash to manage SEND.”

Surely this tells us that we need to look again at the examination system and make sure that schools have enough funding and teachers.

And then there’s the importance of adults being good role models – which brings us back to the Brexit Party’s humiliating protest.

Gateway to new cultures

It would be a bit of leap to imagine that positive role models will solve the languages crisis of course. That will require more practical action. 

But it would help to set the right climate for the post-Brexit era. It would say to parents and pupils who may be disinclined to learn languages that, actually, being part of an international community, being able to communicate with people from other nations, matters. 

I was struck by the comments of a student who is studying A-level German on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning.

He said: “I think languages is almost a forgotten skill, because nowadays you go on holiday to almost any country and you’ll find someone who speaks English almost instantly, so you don’t have to put in that effort. People just forget that languages are a gateway to exploring new cultures.”

I like that phrase “a gateway to new cultures”. It sums up beautifully the great value of learning languages. 

We learn the language of others not only as a tool for trade and transactions, but for reasons that are more fundamental – as a way of fostering understanding and friendship, in recognition that we all in some deep way part of a global community

“Let us sing more cheerful songs,” proclaims Beethoven’s iconic anthem, “more songs full of joy.”

Let’s do that. 

Because it’s precisely in these darkened times that we should be embracing our shared humanity, not mockingly and spitefully turning our backs on it.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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