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Modern Languages Professor warns of languages isolation post Brexit in Hay panel discussion

4 June 2018

Professor Claire Gorrara convened and introduced a topical discussion at this year’s Hay Festival which aimed to unpack attitudes towards language learning in the UK post-Brexit.

On 25 May, Professor Gorrara was joined on stage at the international festival by Christopher Lewis Head of Education at the British Council Wales, Anna Vivian Jones, Leader of Learning for Modern Foreign Languages for ERW, one of the four Welsh education consortia, and Teresa Tinsley, languages consultant and researcher for a panel discussion entitled, “Why bother studying modern languages – everyone speaks English.”

The discussion looked at research which suggests that the UK’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) has hardened negative attitudes towards language learning in schools. Teachers have reported pupils ‘sighing with relief that they no longer need to learn French due to the assumption that everyone speaks English.’

Conversely, the truth is that only 6% of the global population are native English speakers. 75% of the world are unable to speak English at all.

Interestingly, three-quarters of UK residents report being only able to speak English.

The panel pointed out that more blogs exist in Japanese than English; Arabic is the fastest-growing language across all social media platforms; the proportion of web content in English is diminishing while Mandarin’s share is growing and French and German are at the top of any UK employer’s wish list of skills for potential employees.

Professor Gorrara explained “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.” She went on to warn that economic opportunities and bridge-building with the rest of the world was at risk as a result of Brexit if Britons did not become less “linguaphobic” and learn more languages.

The benefits to becoming multilingual are many but getting them across to potential learners is key. Multilingual employees can expect a salary uplift of up to 20% in certain jobs compared to their monoglot peers and 1/3 businesses state that they are looking for people with language skills. The advantages to language learning are not just financial either, with multilingualism helping individual memory, multi-tasking, aptitude, health and attention span.

The School of Modern Languages is working hard in partnership with others to improve attitudes towards language learning. The School leads the Modern Foreign Language mentoring scheme which sees undergraduate students visit local schools to mentor younger pupils in years 8 and 9 to take up a language at GCSE. It also offers over 60 combination degrees which allow you to study multiple languages or a language alongside a range of subjects.

Talking of her appearance at the Hay festival, Professor Gorrara said, “It’s really important to dispel the myths that exist about learning languages when we have an opportunity like this, especially in the uncertain times that are approaching in regard to Brexit. Instead of closing ourselves off, we should be encouraging young people to open their eyes to the rest of the world and the learning of languages is a crucial way to achieve this.”