It’s time to think big and introduce a Rooseveltian “New Deal” approach to the dire state of language learning in the UK for the post-Brexit and post-Covid world.
Who can forget learning a language whilst at school? Such an experience proved to be polarising for students of most schools: there’s those that embrace it, going on every exchange to Madrid and Paris, and others who can barely string a sentence together about what they get up to at the weekend. For me, there’s a sense of “forgive them father for they know not what they do”, as I think the fault for our country being so hopeless at foreign language acquisition is not at the feet of pupils, but rather decades of government failure.
The welcomed EBacc subject initiative has enforced most pupils to take a modern foreign language at GCSE level, as it’s considered a useful “facilitating subject”. There is some sign of hope as figures reported by the British Council point to a slight rise in the number if students taking a language at both GCSE and A level. However, we must be frank, this 3% increase in 2019 will not suffice in fixing our language lacking crisis.
If anyone is an avid follower of UK politics, you’ll be more than familiar with recent events. The first is countless government ministers giving speeches in front of the slogan “Global Britain” in relation to the ongoing Brexit negotiations and subsequent free trade talks. However, this new branding was not accompanied by any new language policy or initiatives. Therefore, the question arises, how can we be “global” whilst only being able to speak English? A time of the UK finding new allies and trade partners in the world, we need rethink and stand out from the rest, languages will help us.
This links to Boris Johnson’s recent speeches where he tried to lay out some form of a ‘New Deal’ to invest in transport infrastructure and “crumbling school buildings”. Whilst naturally more money will be welcomed by everyone, could the PM not be a bit more creative and really build better from the bottom up? A ‘New Deal’ for language education is also needed to transform the UK.
Here are some recommendations which ought to be included in any such approach:
Now the UK has formally left the EU and both sides have commenced free trade negotiations, one key feature of the future relationship with the EU must include Erasmus. Erasmus is a European Union project which allows UK university students to work, study or take volunteer projects in other European countries. Erasmus makes this possible by providing financial grants to students. Without such measures, low income students simply wouldn’t be able to afford such an opportunity. If the UK continues to opt into the Erasmus partnership, young people will still be able to gain overseas experience and bring the skills they’ve learnt from abroad back home. However, if we’re honest, continuing the current form of Erasmus will not be enough. Let’s go further. The UK government could encourage more non-language students to tap into this opportunity. Could we push this further so even students outside of universities are encouraged to take part in this exchange, such as apprentices or others early into their careers? The UK government currently funds the NCS (National Citizen Service) for young people in England and Northern Ireland. Is it time we see the NCS include organised placements for abroad study/work for students in sixth form too? Time to think big and give all a fair shot at seeing a new culture.
Foreign language assistants
Do we remember language assistants in secondary school? At A level, I averaged around one hour a week where I had personal free tuition from a native Spanish speaker. I would have preferred more contact time, but school budgets were stretched enough. Foreign language assistants are made possible because of Erasmus (see previous point), and these are crucial to students improving their language ability. Language departments agree how useful these are, but many schools can only afford one part-time assistant, who averages around 14 hours a week in school per hundreds of students. If the way to learn a language fluently is through contact with natives, then we should increase the number of foreign language assistants in schools. Let’s remember the other benefit, if more foreign language assistants come here, more of us can go abroad too! Spain has realised the benefits, and as a result has embraced English language teaching assistants by removing the number cap of assistants per year- it’s time for a similar sought of boldness back home.
Now comes to my personal favourite. A growing trend at universities is to offer “ab initio” or “from scratch” language ‘add ons’ to a standard degree. For example, I studied A-level Spanish and when I went to university, I had the option of adding French alongside to my BA in Spanish, despite never having studied the language before. Could we develop and expand this idea to most degrees, and as a sort of reward offer discounted tuition fees? For example, some currently in demand languages, including the usual suspects: French, German and Spanish. As well as some other non-European rooted ones such as: Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. If a language is deemed to be in demand by the government, the Department of Education could reduce the tuition fees of this subject to increase uptake. In practice, this could mean a BSc in straight Economics would cost £9,250 in England. However, if you took Economics as a major and added perhaps French as a minor (perhaps worth 25% of your degree), then your tuition fees could be reduced to £7,500 a year instead. The benefits: students would have acquired less student loan debt, a more global viewpoint and the global language skills for the future. Meanwhile, the government would have a new generation of language learners ready to take on the world.
More of the same old ‘languages are important, but let’s not rock the boat’ action will not save us from being isolated from the rest of an ever increasingly global world. We need to not only have an honest conversation with ourselves, we also need some real action. In a post COVID and Brexit country, we must think boldly and view horizons afar. Languages will help to lead us along the way.
Jon Nield is a student studying French and Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast. He is interested in languages, sociolinguistics and the politics of language in society.