As the UK prime minister jets off to discuss on the war in Ukraine, I find myself wondering about the communication between him and his counterparts around the world. While we cannot expect our politicians to converse fluently in every language, the very poor language skills of most of our politicians render them ill equipped, now more than ever, for the global challenges facing us.
Parlez vous ‘franglais’?
We hear boasting from Boris Johnson regarding his language skills. He claims to speak French, Italian, ancient Greek and Latin. However, as with most of his boasts, the reality is a lot less impressive. He often uses a foreign language for effect or for laughs. Plenty of recordings are available for everyone to judge.
See for example his attempt at responding to MP Alberto Costa in Italian. He may well be proficient in French, managing to use a mixture of English and French in a deliberate attempt to mock the French after their failed deal to supply submarines to Australia, although I would certainly not congratulate him on the diplomacy of the move.
In stark contrast with British politicians, we see Ursula Von der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Guy Verhofstadt, Michelle Barnier and many others address the European parliament in a second language rather than their mother tongue, day in and day out, as part of their job in a multicultural and multilingual scenery.
Learning a language
We learn languages in order to communicate, but it is not an easy process. It takes dedication and perseverance. I am originally from the Basque Country region of Spain. I learned Basque as a second language from the age of seven and English as my third language from the age of 12. However, it took a lot of effort to get to a proficient level in English.
At the age of 14 I enrolled to take my first exam in English language in what we call the ‘Escuela Oficial de Idiomas‘, which is a state-funded institution where anyone can learn a language. I haven’t found a similar opportunity for youngsters in the UK to deepen their knowledge outside what is taught in school. Some private courses can be found, but they are expensive, and certain universities offer adult lessons.
As a student of several languages myself, I personally find English to be one of the easiest languages to learn as a second language, spelling and pronunciation aside. It has a simple grammar and versatile vocabulary. English is the language of science and diplomacy, the language of Hollywood films and many series, the language of music for the last 100 years. Eurostat figures show us in 2019 the most commonly taught second language in the EU was English with 96 percent of learners, followed by Spanish with 26 percent.
The decline of languages in the UK
I don’t see British youngsters trying to prove to the world their proficiency in any of the modern languages like I did myself from the age of 14. An EU-wide survey mentioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) reported that just 32 percent of young people in the UK class themselves as ‘able’ to read or write in more than one language, compared with 79 percent of their peers in France, or more than 90 percent in Germany.
In fact, the British government’s own analysis shows that young people are far from going the extra mile to learn French or German, with a decline in the numbers of pupils sitting GCSE foreign language exams since 2004. While in 1997, 82 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys were entered for a modern language GCSE, by 2007 only 47 percent of pupils were taking them.
The British Council described the decline in language learning as “worrying” in their annual report in 2019. This report was a response to the ongoing concerns about the level of participation in language learning since the subject was removed from the compulsory curriculum in 2004. The research not only reveals a drop of nearly 20 percent in GCSE language entries since 2014 (German and French falling 30 percent), it also points to a decline in A-level entries. Just between 2017 and 2018, German A-level entries declined by 16 percent, French by 7 percent and Spanish by 3 percent.
Languages and immigration
The British Council report also makes interesting remarks about the change in the attitude of pupils and their parents towards learning European languages after Brexit. The majority of secondary schools have become dependent on EU citizens to staff their modern language departments. This doesn’t come as a surprise given the declining language uptake observed since 2004. Some 67 percent of state schools and 79 percent of independent schools employ one or more EU citizens as language teachers.
This is therefore a concern regarding the continuity of some schools’ language departments given the increased barriers for employing EU citizens since leaving the EU. A little peek at the immigration rules at gov.uk reveals the shortage occupation list, which lists modern foreign languages teachers as one of the professions most affected. I was surprised not to see other language-related professions listed; I guess the UK is relying on the world continuing to adapt to English, as it has for the previous century.
Language learning in Brexit times
As mentioned in the British Council report, a meta-analysis by Egger and Lassmann found that having a common language increases trade flow by 44 percent.
In this ‘post-EU era’ the UK will need international trade experts, we will need translators and interpreters, foreign policy experts, trade and business men and women that can build a global Britain in a dangerous world. In a UK outside of the EU we need great negotiators to travel and face their peers in other countries to reach agreements beneficial for our future: the education of those shaping the UK’s future is in our hands.
The population in the UK should strive to achieve language proficiency from a young age, when languages are best learned. As the evidence suggests, removing modern language teaching from the mandatory curriculum has made our students less likely to take up a GCSE in the subject. Perhaps this is the time to reconsider the direction we want for our children. Personally I would love a UK able to offer everyone the opportunity to immerse themselves in the language and culture of neighbouring countries and lands far away. I don’t want the adults of the future to grow up monolingual and take for granted the world will learn to speak to them in English.
Are we ready for the global challenge?
Learning a second language should, in my view, be mandatory, making a universe of experiences a bit closer. Those who led the UK through this path of separation need to understand the benefits of multilingualism rather than using languages as dividing swords. Politicians using their language skills for mockery and buffoon pranks are the antithesis of what this society needs at the moment.
In a UK outside the EU we need great negotiators, who better than those who can talk face to face to their customers? And there’s no way of achieving such proficiency without immersing yourself in the culture and life of the country the language you’re studying.
Going back to our initial question: Is the UK ready for conversations at eye level with the world?
My answer would be: a Big NO.