Who wants to talk?

In the third of a new series of comment pieces written by linguists at Cambridge, Jocelyn Wyburd, Director of the University’s Language Centre and Chair of the University Council for Modern Languages, argues that Brexit poses an additional threat to language learning in Britain which must be overcome.

Some pupils have already announced that they no longer need to attend their language classes because we will be leaving the EU.

Jocelyn Wyburd, Director of the University's Language Centre
Just one of the motivations to vote ‘Leave’ in the UK’s recent EU Referendum was a desire to limit immigration, fuelled by a wide range of issues including strains on jobs and public services, but also by discomfort (verging on fear) about multiculturalism and multilingualism in ‘Anglophone’ Britain.
We heard that Nigel Farage disliked sharing trains with people speaking languages other than English, and shortly before the referendum it was reported that a Muslim woman on a bus had been berated for not speaking English to her son, when she was actually speaking Welsh.
Wales is a proudly bilingual nation which, through its Global Futures strategy is dedicated to promoting language learning and greater cross-cultural understanding. Scotland, meanwhile, has adopted the EU-wide goal of mastery of Mother Tongue plus two languages (where Mother Tongue might be English, Scots or another language). No such goals exist for the UK as a whole or for England, though the Department for Education’s statement of purpose for the teaching of languages in English schools opens with the assertion that “learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures”.
Since the referendum result, it has been distressing to hear from teachers that some pupils have already announced that they no longer need to attend their language classes because we will be leaving the EU. Yet the Government’s current policy is for 90% of pupils who started secondary school last year to take a language GCSE, within the EBacc suite of core academic subjects. The 2015 figure was just 48%, including in languages not taught in mainstream schools but studied in the supplementary sector run by local communities. There is already a massive language teacher shortage and restrictions on movement of workforce from the EU could exacerbate this further.
Universities have a key role to play in promoting take-up as evidenced by the Routes into Languages programme. The impact evaluation of outreach events run by us at Cambridge shows a massive change in attitude towards future language learning, as reflected in a comment from Stefanie Green of Farlingaye High School after bringing pupils to our Year 10 and Sixth form events earlier this year: “Seeing how enthusiastic students are about language learning, and how it empowers them to make intellectual connections between subjects, and how it makes them more confident, is priceless. Learning languages now is more important than ever before.”
All too often, however, we hear that pupil opportunities to continue at school are stymied by other decision-makers determining which subjects they should take, or by reduction in the availability of languages in Sixth Forms. This then impacts on applications to study languages at university. It is only through these degrees that young people develop the higher levels of linguistic competence, cultural knowledge and insights, and cross-cultural agility of the ‘transnational graduate’ required by today’s global society. On a more positive note, universities are witnessing unprecedented demand for language learning (albeit frequently at low levels) alongside their degree subjects, with students expressing dismay that they withdrew (or were withdrawn) from languages earlier. 
However effective we are at conveying the importance of multilingualism to future generations, we still find ourselves swimming against a culture which all too easily rejects languages other than English. In spite of advances in Wales and Scotland, the UK Government has to date failed to articulate the centrality of languages as essential skills to UK and global citizenship, not to mention trade, diplomacy, security, soft power and social cohesion. I call on it to do so within the wider context of the climate at home as well as the UK’s role in the world post Brexit.
This series also includes contributions by Professor Sarah Colvin and Dr Heather Inwood.
Jocelyn Wyburd has written more on this topic in The Linguist (Oct / Nov 2016), pp.11-13.

Studying languages at Cambridge

Inspiring events for prospective students for these subjects are run by the University and the Cambridge Colleges throughout the year:
More information and advice for prospective students and teachers of Modern Languages and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Upcoming events organised by The University of Cambridge Language Centre are listed here
More information about Cambridge's Widening Participation programmes is available here

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