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Brexit – a bleak outlook for foreign languages in the UK?

June 3, 2016

In the second of our Brexit series, Anne Hargreaves thinks about what a "leave" vote in the EU referendum this month might mean for foreign languages in the UK.


As professional linguists, we are concerned about the situation if the UK were to vote to leave the EU. This is a short summary of the position as we see it.


Learning, using, teaching and working in other languages by mother-tongue English speakers has been in decline in the UK for some years. Starting with the removal of compulsory languages after age 14, take-up of languages at GCSE and A level has dropped, and this has inevitably been reflected in the reduction or closure of language courses and departments at University level. This is not the place to revisit the reasons why language learning is good both for the individual and for the nation – suffice to say that despite widespread competence in English (or Englishes) by speakers of other languages, knowledge of at least one other language remains an important skill. This is recognised in the government’s policy of second-language learning for all in primary school, and in numerous business surveys bearing out the need for language skills in the workplace.


Unfortunately, a number of factors suggest that the current situation – already fairly unsatisfactory – is set to get worse if Britain decides to leave the European Union.



Language study, traineeships and travel for young people is one of the priorities of the EU organisations, and the Erasmus scheme and various other exchange and mobility programmes have provided support for many students from the UK to spend time in Europe. Now under one heading as “Erasmus+”, this was one funding area that was not reduced in 2013 when reductions in EU spending were made. Staff exchanges between University departments within Europe are also funded. This support is likely to be irreplaceable if the UK leaves the EU. Further, opportunities in Europe would be more difficult for students and young people as mobility throughout Europe would be unlikely to be as straightforward.


The EU also has an important role to play in the development of evidence-based language policy. Working with Eurostat, Unesco, and the OECD, statistics are prepared and analysed to ensure that member states have robust information on which to base their investment in language teaching and learning. In the past the UK, via the British Council in particular, has taken an active part in this research. A recent survey by The Times Higher Education finds that 24% of research in University departments in the UK involving “language, communication and culture” is currently funded by the EU.


In schools, the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, recently stated that schools in the UK currently have over 1,000 native speaker language assistants, helping students to learn French, German and Spanish. Issues relating to ease of travel, work permits, etc. would make this more difficult after a Brexit. School trips and exchanges and family holidays to Europe may become more complex and expensive, reducing students’ opportunities and interest in European languages. Of course, it is possible that greater emphasis would be placed on non-European languages, such as Mandarin for example, but there are practical obstacles involving distance and expense for visits and probable difficulties in obtaining teachers. Overall the picture for language learning is not positive.


Language industry

We looked at prevailing opinion in our industry.

The Association of Translation Companies is unequivocal:

“…. a survey of the UK’s language service providers shows that more than two thirds believe that their businesses with EU-based enterprises will be compromised if the referendum results in a vote to leave the European Union.”


The Chartered Institute of Linguists has also polled its members, and we quote from their report as follows:

“Nearly 84% of respondents said they are in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, with 16% against staying in.

Respondents against Brexit were prompted to give their two most important reasons, and by far the majority chose ‘Freedom to live and work in other EU countries’ and ‘Better for trade, investment in the UK and jobs’.”


It seems likely that there would be a negative impact on staffing in the industry, which employs numerous EU nationals, with greater restrictions on freedom of movement within Europe. This could be counterbalanced to a certain extent if migration for non-European nationals became easier.


Professional linguists

Of course, many linguists working in the UK are either nationals of EU (or other) states, and/or have family members that are. Brexit would be likely to lead to a change of immigration status for many, with difficult personal and financial decisions to be made. This would also apply to British nationals currently based in EU states. We do not yet know whether greater opportunities would arise in the UK for linguists from non-EU countries, if Brexit were to take place.



Greater need for foreign languages but reduced opportunities to learn them?

Some commentators have speculated on the reduced use of English and greater use of French in the official dealings of the EU organisations after a Brexit. There may well also be an urgent need for linguists able to support negotiations for the new trade agreements to be reached when Britain leaves the EU umbrella. The old saying may prove to be true: that if you want to buy something, any language will do; however if you want to sell, or ask a favour, you will need to speak the language of your negotiating partner. There could well be an ongoing need for language support for changed patterns of trade. This could be a good thing for language entrepreneurs and businesses – at this stage, as with much of the post-Brexit landscape, we just don’t know.


References and further reading

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