If we throw language learning under the Brexit bus, it’s the UK that will suffer

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“This one year changed my life, my values and my appreciation of those of others”.

As an undergraduate studying Spanish and French in 1969, I really didn’t want to spend a year abroad, and it wasn’t compulsory to do so in those days. My arm was twisted by my tutor, and I spent a year in Granada, Spain. That year changed my life, and made me a confident speaker of Spanish, made me a hispanophile and a proper hispanist!

Soon after I arrived, the conserje (caretaker) of the block of flats I stayed in said to me one day: “Te ingré, ¿no?”, or at least that was what it sounded like. I replied “Sí” in a not very convinced voice, but not having understood at all. Later, after much puzzlement I twigged: he had actually asked “Usted es inglés, ¿no?” (“You’re English, aren’t you?”), but in the local accent and ‘swallowing’ lots of crucial letters. My very traditional school and university studies in Spanish had not prepared me for this at all: real Spanish!

After about three months I became ‘linguistically acclimatised’, then started learning very rapidly. I also acquired my taste for calamares (squid), garbanzos (chick-peas) and jamón serrano (serrano ham). I finally decided to try them after seeing my Spanish friends fight over what I was leaving on my plate and I’ve never looked back. Not only that, I returned to my university ready for my final year so much more mature, culturally aware, and confident in my Spanish. I could not in all conscience have gone into language teaching without this experience.

Yet, Brexit has deprived British language students of their freedom of movement in Europe. Universities are extremely worried now about the lack of opportunities for their language students to benefit from their year in an EU country. As quoted in an article in the Guardian on 23 February, the dean of research and innovation at Cardiff University, Claire Gorrara, said “I don’t think anybody was fully aware of the extent of the entanglement of the UK with the EU. Like any sector – the same goes for fishing, transport and logistics – the university sector is grappling with the complexities of the situation that weren’t known until it happened.” This is yet another area which the Brexit government overlooked in the rush to “get Brexit done”.

As one student, Antonia Kessel, says: “For so many people, going on a year abroad is unfeasible at the moment”, and another, Esme Cawley: “Navigating a year abroad post-Brexit has been a total administrative and financial nightmare.” Students now face mountains of red tape and having to prove that they can afford their stay in some countries, including proof of more than €6,000 (£5,194) in their bank account. Brexiters voted for an end to freedom of movement… for British youngsters who need to spend time in an EU country as part of their studies: the future teachers of European languages in our schools.

However, if some MPs have their way, this will cease to be a problem: Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury, tweeted on 22 Feb:

 The man’s totally blinkered ignorance is revealed when one considers that French and Spanish, and to a lesser extent German, are WORLD languages. The first two are spoken in considerably more than 20 countries each, many of them developing countries which are ripe for trade with the UK. The number of ‘native Spanish’ speakers in the world rivals the number of English speakers. Besides, as I reported in my article on language teaching, ‘Has Brexit wrecked my life’s work?’, the UK needs competent linguists.

This was also reinforced in The New Statesman on 28 November 2017:

“The government today would be wise to act quickly if they are serious about becoming a leader in global free trade post-Brexit. It’s a myth that everyone around the world speaks English, and companies are finding to their cost that building export growth is up against a big barrier in the form of the United Kingdom’s languages deficit.”

Others have made the same case, yet I suppose people like Kawczynski and other Brexiters don’t need experts and the prejudiced garbage they spout is their ‘policy’.

What about the practicalities? It is easier to spend time in a country just a couple of flying hours away from home, not only for university students, but for school pupils studying languages. Roger Savage, the eye witness in “Democracy breaks up from the inside”, was in Granada during the coup attempt on 23 February 1981, to establish an annual school exchange for Staffordshire; for many years, 400 Staffordshire school children per year were able to stay with Spanish and French families. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to do the same with a country on the other side of the world.

Here are the testimonies of several people who have benefited from their ‘year abroad’:

Gareth Thomas

“I spent the third year of a Languages degree in Languedoc, teaching in a secondary modern school. I was also privileged to attend lectures one day a week at Montpellier University, where I sat in on lectures in Spanish literature. This was a perfect link between my second and final years, and I find it very sad that future students will find this almost impossible to do. It gave me time to breathe another culture and to read widely in other languages. At this time, it was my good fortune to be offered a room at the home of one of the teachers, who had children around my age, all with eclectic cultural tastes which often challenged mine! I quickly gained fluency and spent the whole year speaking almost entirely in French. My relationship with this family became very close and lasted over 40 years.  Looking back, I realise that this one year changed my life, my values and my appreciation of those of others more than any other.”

Gareth Thomas, formerly Professor of Modern Languages and later Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor with responsibility for Academic Affairs at University of Coventry.

Steven Fawkes

“Language teachers all know the value of any sort of direct, personal international experience in motivating learners, of whatever age, from the short study visit (to experience hearing native speakers all around you, going to the shop and emerging with your chosen ice-cream) to the exchange (as students gained more linguistic and personal confidence) and then to the adventure of the year abroad for undergraduates (which for many are life-enhancing if not life-changing experiences).

Many languages teachers, like me, benefited from the year abroad ourselves, from these aspects among others:

  • the real challenge of putting the language we had been studying in the classroom into practice (with people who were not patient teachers!) 
  • the discovery of personal resources the experience built up: self-confidence as well as language competence
  • the unique (for many young people) chance to encounter a whole different people, different styles of life and registers of language
  • the acquisition of cultural flexibility, and new perspectives on what we had taken for granted as ‘normal’
  • the absolute need to develop relationships with strangers, through the medium of another language
  • and the satisfaction, and boost to self-confidence, of not only surviving that, but thriving”

Steven Fawkes is a Trustee of the Association for Language Learning. He spent his year abroad 1975-76 in Marseille

Bernard Lien:

“As a French national, I came to the UK in the 1970s, to combine researching for my Masters degree and experiencing the British educational system as a French assistant in a secondary school. The experience was so positive that I decided to train as a teacher, making educating the young people of the UK my life’s primary objective. The last 20 years of my career were as a University Teacher Trainer, during which I trained hundreds of Modern Foreign Languages teachers.

Without a shade of a doubt, an overwhelming majority of the teachers I trained had gained valuable experience of the ‘University of Life’: working abroad, often as foreign language assistants, either in EU countries in the case of British language graduates, or in the UK in the case of EU English graduates. As years have gone by, the proportion of EU English graduates among Languages teachers being trained to work in our schools has increased to the point that, as I write, they make up two thirds of all qualifying languages teachers.”

As I explained in “Has Brexit wrecked my life’s work?”, this was the result of a conscious recruitment strategy to recruit EU teachers to address the shortage of language teachers introduced by the government:

TDA (Training and Development Agency for Schools) – Languages in training, 2010

“The Agency is working with the Department to develop a marketing and recruitment strategy to encourage more people to become language teachers.”

Bernard continues: “With the UK leaving the EU, such opportunities, including the Erasmus scheme, have been taken away from young people, which is resulting in a shortage of language teachers which will soon be so acute that schools will be forced to turn the teaching of foreign languages into a minority/elitist subject on a par with classical languages like Latin and Greek, mainly upheld by independent and selective schools. This situation in my opinion is bound to have utterly tragic consequences in the global World we and our children live in.”

Bernard Lien, formerly County Languages Advisor, later PGCE Tutor

One of my daughters spent her assistantship in France twenty or so years ago. As well as improving her French and gaining so much cultural awareness and experience of the French way of life, she met her future husband; they married just a few years later: a true multicultural family. A very clear and full account of the benefits gained during ‘the year abroad’ is given by Ellie Baker in the interview in this link, from 12m40s to 22m30s. Here is a further testimony from Tom Pandolfino, which appeared in the Guardian on 26 February: “They gave me a key to another world: the polyglot teacher bringing languages to life”.

As for all of those lucky enough to have spent a ‘year abroad’, our experience has changed our lives for the better, and made us more complete, competent linguists. As Eric Gates states so succinctly in his article: “Two nations divided by a common language”, “Part of the experience of learning a language is to understand the culture that goes with it and the values that go with that culture.” Best done in at the deep end, immersed in the country of one’s language of study!

Just as this is about to go to press, a late addition: a Tory MP confessing in a TV debate on student problems resulting from Brexit “Am I going to sit here and say that Brexit is perfect and your generation is going to reap the benefits? No, I’m not”.

We’ve had the best years; the wonderful experience we had is now being denied to the next generation, and the UK will no longer be able to produce the sort of linguists post-Brexit that ‘global’ Britain so desperately needs. If only those in power were not so wedded to their English exceptionalist ideology.